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Regan confirmed as US EPA chief as lawmakers discuss agency’s future
The US Senate overwhelmingly confirmed Michael Regan to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 10 March, just hours after two former heads of the agency told members of Congress EPA should return to sound science, protection of public health, and strong enforcement against polluters after four years of deregulation under President Donald Trump.
Regan, who is the agency's first Black administrator and an advocate for environmental justice, was confirmed in a 66-34 vote, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joining the Republican no-votes.
Christine Todd Whitman, who led EPA in President George W. Bush's first term; and Carol Browner, who served as the agency's chief for eight years under President Bill Clinton, both welcomed Regan as a man with the right experience and credibility to rebuild and expand EPA at a critical time.
He will face the daunting task of returning the agency to its core mission and replacing hundreds of employees, including 627 scientists, who left the EPA under President Trump, the former administrators told a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing. But the new EPA chief must also expand outreach to communities that carry the heaviest pollution burden and tackle climate change equitably, they said.
Regan's supporters say his experience turning around the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality prepared him for the challenges at the federal level, as did his experience working in Washington earlier in his career. The DEQ had been ravaged by budget cuts by the former Republican governor, which left staff demoralized.
Regan noted during his confirmation hearing in February that as North Carolina's top environmental regulator, he visited 99 of the state's 100 counties and only missed the last one because of coronavirus restrictions. He plans to carry out similar efforts as EPA administrator, he said, by meeting workers and business leaders in the states affected by EPA policies.
Such assurances have not mitigated angst and anger among some Republicans who believe the Biden administration will pursue climate and environmental policies tougher than those of all previous presidents. On the Democrat's agenda, for example, is a fossil-free electricity sector by 2035 and new methane regulations for the oil and natural gas industry.
McConnell told the Senate floor ahead of the vote that Regan will roll out "the same far-left policies that crushed jobs and prosperity in states like Kentucky" under President Barack Obama. It was an apparent reference to the US coal industry, which has been unable to compete against cheaper gas and renewable energy sources for years — a trend that continued under Trump.
Republicans raised similar concerns earlier in the day during the hearing about EPA's future, with much of the discussion centering on the economic disaster in rural West Virginia counties that depended on coal revenue.
But Whitman, a Republican and former governor of New Jersey, challenged the notion that environmental policies kill jobs, telling lawmakers that the US proved over the past four decades this wasn't true.
"Between 1980 and 2017, we saw our population grow by 43%, our energy consumption grew 25%, and we drove 110 more miles, which emitted more pollution while our GDP grew 167% — and yet we reduced overall criteria pollution by 65%," she said. "That's what can happen when we talk about addressing things like climate change."
Both she and Browner also stressed the need for robust enforcement to carry out EPA's mission, this after some areas of enforcement declined under the Trump administration.
"Enforcement is about compliance, it's about getting companies to do the right thing; it is also about fairness," Browner said. "If I comply with an environmental regulation and my competitor doesn't, that's a basic unfairness. I'm spending money to achieve an environmental end point that they're not spending money on."
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