Michael Regan promises urgent action on climate in EPA confirmation hearing

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — Michael Regan, President Joe Biden's pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, told a Senate panel Wednesday that if confirmed, he would protect economic prosperity even as he implements the new administration's aggressive climate goals "with a sense of urgency." 

If confirmed, the 44-year-old former North Carolina environmental regulator would be the first Black man to lead the EPA, which will be one of the crucial agencies in Biden's multi-pronged approach to combating climate change. 

Regan told the Senate Environment and Public Works committee Wednesday he's passionate about combating the disproportionate effects of pollution on communities of color and low-income communities, and said he would ask Congress for additional funding to advance that goal.

Like other Biden appointees who will have significant influence on climate policy, Regan stressed the importance of maintaining or growing the economy alongside environmental sustainability. 

"In North Carolina we’re moving beyond the old argument that we have to pit creating jobs against protecting the environment," he said in his opening statement. "If confirmed, I will work with the entire administration to build and strengthen that partnership to power America's economy with cleaner energy and create millions of good-paying middle class jobs."

It was a message met with skepticism by Republican members of the committee, many of whom asked him to specify how he and other cabinet members would actually protect jobs amid a major transition in the energy and manufacturing sectors. 

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, pushed hard for Regan to describe what would happen to oil and gas workers in a transition to other sources of energy. 

Regan responded that there would be major investments in water, electricity and transportation infrastructure: "I believe that many of the jobs and the skill sets that people have... can move quickly to those jobs. There is a path, there is a vision."

Still, both Republican and Democratic members of the committee praised his transparency and dedication to listening, and it seems unlikely he will face major opposition on the Senate floor. 

Regan gained a reputation for his bipartisan work in North Carolina. He was introduced to the panel by both Republican senators from his home state, including GOP Sen. Richard Burr, who called him “a good man” who is “extremely, extremely qualified for this position.”

The Biden administration has said Regan's reputation as a consensus-builder was one of the reasons he was picked for the position, in addition to his connections within the environmental justice community. While Republicans on the panel expressed concern about the economic impact of Biden’s early climate actions, environmental advocates fear he may not be aggressive enough.

The agency's actions will have a far-reaching affect on the U.S. auto industry, including changes to federal emissions standards that determine how much carbon dioxide vehicles can emit on the road. 

In March last year, EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finalized a rule that would increase emissions standards by 1.5% every year through model year 2026, rather than the 5% annual bump put in place by the Obama administration. 

The agency is expected to take a sharp turn back toward Obama-era regulations. Automakers considered Obama's rules too aggressive while environmental advocates are urging the Biden administration to go further. 

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the leading advocacy group for automakers selling vehicles in the U.S., announced earlier this week it was pushing for the Biden administration not to return to Obama's rules but to implement new levels "roughly midway" between the last two presidential administrations. 

Biden has directed the EPA to review the Trump-era emissions standards. Regan, however, did not commit to making them more stringent. 

"I do anticipate using our statutory authority to set the rules for the road," he said. "I believe that we're going to do it in a way that complements the aggressive goals set by and established by the private sector, the automobile industries."

General Motors Co. recently announced it plans to become carbon neutral by 2040 and drop gas and diesel engines in all new light-duty vehicles by 2035. Other major automakers are also investing heavily in electric vehicles as they race to compete in European and Asian markets with more stringent regulations and higher demand for EVs. 

The transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to EPA, and is expected to be a major focus of Biden's push to reduce the nation's carbon footprint. Biden has said he wants to reach net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050 and eliminate carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2035.

Regan also did not commit to setting a federal drinking water limit for per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals, long-lasting toxins that have been found in more than 154 sites in Michigan. 

After months of debate, the state set maximum contaminant levels for seven of the compounds last year, giving Michigan some of the strictest rules in the nation for the chemicals.

The EPA was one of the agencies most affected by former President Donald Trump's deregulatory approach to federal policymaking, with nearly 100 environmental rules reversed or rolled back under the administration. 

rbeggin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @rbeggin