The Pulse

Gov. Cooper names Michael Regan, former EPA, Environmental Defense Fund to lead NCDEQ

By: - January 3, 2017 3:08 pm
Michael Regan, nominee for Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality. He is originally from Goldsboro.

As soon as Michael Regan spoke at the governor’s mansion today, it became clear that he is the antithesis of Donald van der Vaart.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s choice to lead the state Department of Environmental Quality, Regan was softspoken, yet confident. In contrast, as DEQ secretary, van der Vaart exerted his authority through a domineering, even defensive persona. Both men do have expertise in air quality: Regan worked for 10 years at the EPA in that division. Meanwhile, van der Vaart, who aspires to work at the EPA, last week demoted himself back to a section chief in DEQ’s air quality division as a way to avoid being fired as political appointee.

But the similarities end there. Regan is a clean energy proponent, having spent eight years as the National Director of Energy Efficiency Southeast Climate & Energy Policy at the Environmental Defense Fund (where he also worked as Southeast regional director).

Van der Vaart sued the EPA (yes, the very agency he wants to work for) over the Clean Power Plan. If enacted, the CPP would help reduce greenhouse gases through tighter federal regulations on coal-fired power plants. In 2012, while Regan was at EDF, the group and three other nonprofits sued Duke Energy over air pollution permits; as a result, Duke and the groups, who were represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, reached a settlement agreement. Duke Energy retired old-coal-fired units that lacked modern pollution controls.

Van der Vaart consistently positioned the agency as “business-friendly.” That philosophy often translated into streamlined permitting processes and laxer regulations in the name of economic development. Regan, though, views a clean environment — and its attendant regulations — as an economic engine. He is from Goldsboro in eastern North Carolina, an area that is both economically and environmentally fragile. “We cherish clean, air and water,” Regan told the press at a media event at the Governor’s Mansion today. “That goes hand in hand with economic development.”

On a blog posted to the EDF site last February, Regan discussed how clean energy and energy efficiency can tackle rural poverty and environmental justice in eastern North Carolina,  through partnerships with rural electrical cooperatives and minority communities.

Now Regan must be confirmed by the state Senate, a political obstacle unprecedented in recent history. Although the state constitution authorizes the senate to confirm a governor’s appointments, lawmakers have not invoked that power in recent history. Only during last month’s special session, when all manner of political chicanery occurred, did conservative lawmakers announce they would put Cooper’s appointees through the wringer.

“My first goal is to look at the men and women who serve in DEQ. There’s a lot of expertise and passion, and I want to get their advice,” Regan said, adding that he would contact the legislative leadership. “I also want to work on transparency.”

Cooper said that he was not concerned about the Senate’s reaction to Regan’s work experience with the Environmental Defense Fund. “I want to appoint the very best people to serve and those who can bring people together,” Cooper said.

To keep DEQ and other agencies operating until the confirmations are complete, Cooper has asked several people to be “caretaker supervisors” of several departments. Bill Ross , director of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, will oversee DEQ; he was the department secretary from 2001 to 2009, when the state enacted the Clean Smokestacks Act, largely credited for the state’s air quality improvements.

If Regan is confirmed, he would be the second African-American DEQ secretary. Howard Lee held that post from 1977 to 1981.

Jane Preyer, senior director of EDF, praised Regan’s work, saying in a prepared statement that he “will deliver pragmatic, science-based guidance to Governor Cooper as his administration works to protect our environment and boost our economy. His expertise and highly collaborative leadership style has earned him the respect of communities, businesses and government agencies. He will be a strong advocate for the clean air, clean water and clean energy our state must have for a prosperous future.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.