Michael Regan, nominated to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, is hugged by his son, Matthew, after his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday.

Michael Regan, nominated to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, is hugged by his son, Matthew, after his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday. Caroline Brehman / Pool via AP

Labor and Environmental Groups Optimistic Biden’s EPA Pick Can Rebuild Trust

Still, the nominee would have a lot of work ahead of him if confirmed, advocates note. 

Environmental groups and the largest union representing Environmental Protection Agency employees expressed optimism following a confirmation hearing Wednesday that President Biden’s pick to lead the EPA will bring back scientific integrity and trust at the agency. 

Michael Regan, most recently secretary of North Carolina's Department of Environmental Quality, worked for the EPA in various capacities from 1998 to 2008. “We will restore the role of science and transparency at EPA. We will support the dedicated and talented career officials,” he testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “We will move with a sense of urgency on climate change and we will stand up for environmental justice and equity and we will do that in a collaborative manner in partnership with state and local governments.” 

The Trump administration came under fire for reportedly sidelining EPA officials on matters involving scientific integrity, climate change and deregulation. In August, six former EPA administrators, who served under Democratic and Republican presidents, called for a “reset” at the agency as part of a campaign by the Environmental Protection Network. The Biden administration now has repeatedly stressed that science, not politics, will guide its approach to combating climate change and the novel coronavirus pandemic, among other issues. 

“There are a lot of staff at EPA right now doing a reevaluation of a ton of rules and activities that may or may not have been done in a transparent manner or leveraged science the way we’d like,” Regan told lawmakers. “So we’re going to correct that.”

If confirmed, Regan would make history as the first Black man to be EPA administrator in the agency’s 50-year existence. 

Gary Morton, president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ Council 238––which represents 7,500 EPA employees nationwide–– said in a statement after the hearing, “it's clear that Regan would be committed to the EPA's mission of protecting human health and the environment, and would once again put science at the forefront of decision making.” 

Regan would need to rebuild trust with EPA employees “who were demeaned and whose expertise [was] devalued under the Trump administration,” Morton said. “While it was encouraging today to hear Regan emphasize his commitment to supporting EPA staff, workers must see actions that will allow them to do their jobs to the best of their ability.” 

Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, told Government Executive, “Regan proved he is just the right person to lead the EPA in addressing the climate, racial justice, economic and public health crises, and he made clear he will always be guided by science and the law.” 

If confirmed, Regan “has a difficult road ahead” as he will be “taking charge of a captive agency, where polluters and their lobbyists have driven many of the agency’s most important decisions,” said Tim Whitehouse, executive director of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. But Whitehouse added that “so far, President Biden and Michael Regan are making all the right moves by promising to bring the EPA back to its science roots and by bringing in an environmental team with few ties to industry.” 

Regan can further this by “moving problem managers out of their current positions and strengthening the agency's anemic scientific integrity policy, which fails to provide meaningful protection from retaliation for EPA employees who express a differing scientific opinion,” Whitehouse said.

According to an analysis by the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the EPA lost 672 scientific experts between 2016 and 2020. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the organization, told Government Executive, however, that he felt “encouraged and hopeful” after Regan’s confirmation hearing. 

“I’m a former career [employee] from [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and I know from a career perspective you really want the political leadership at the agency to listen to your expertise and one of the things that happened under President Trump was the career experts were really shut out of the policy discussions,” he said. “Everything that Michael Regan said implied he would not do that; that he’d not only listen to the career experts, but he’d also listen to the public. That’s a huge change from where we’ve been.” 

When asked about how the nominee could address the staffing and funding (when adjusted for inflation) decreases at the EPA over the years, Rosenberg said Regan will need to build relationships with members of Congress, “but I think there is pretty wide recognition that we need the agency now more than ever.” 

Correction: This article was updated to say that Regan would be the first Black man to run the EPA. Lisa Jackson was the first Black administrator.