clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The mess that Biden’s EPA chief Michael Regan will inherit, explained

After four years of Trump, the EPA is poised to make a dramatic turn on pollution, climate change, and justice.

Nominee for EPA Administrator Michael Regan speaks on December 19, 2020.
Joshua Roberts/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Among the personnel changes in the transition between the Trump and Biden administrations, one of the starkest will be who’s at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who presided over the weakening of critical regulations that limit climate change at the EPA, has now been replaced by someone who has climate policy as a central pillar of his agenda.

Michael Regan, Biden’s nominee to lead the EPA, was confirmed by the Senate on Wednesday with 66 votes, the most votes for an EPA administrator since 2009.

“I do believe he will be somebody we can rely on to be fair,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican who represents North Carolina, the state where Regan leads the Department of Environmental Quality, at a hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in early February. “At the end of the day, we have a great, well-qualified nominee before us, and I encourage your support.”

Regan did face some scrutiny from Republicans about his views on policies like expanding the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act and Biden’s decision to revoke the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and block new oil and gas leases on public lands.

Yet he wasn’t shy in the hearing about his support for implementing Biden’s environmental policies, which include the most ambitious climate change agenda in US history, aiming for entirely carbon-free electricity production by 2035. “We will move with a sense of urgency on climate change, and we will stand up for environmental justice and equity,” Regan said.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) bumps elbows with Michael Regan after his confirmation hearing to lead the EPA.
CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Regan represents an almost 180-degree turn from the last four years. Trump’s first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, was openly contemptuous of the agency, describing it as a “bastion of liberalism.” During his prior job as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times to block its regulations. As administrator, he had a strong contempt for policies to address climate change, calling Trump “courageous” for withdrawing the US from the Paris climate accord. Even the words “climate change” were deleted from EPA websites.

“My basic belief is he is really an administrator without a belief in the mission of the agency,” said William Ruckelshaus, the first and the fifth administrator of the EPA, told Vox in 2018. (Ruckelshaus died in 2019.) “The cumulative impact of what he [was] doing will considerably lower the positive impact [of the EPA] on human health and the environment, and a lot of the progress we’ve made over the last 40 years would be eliminated.”

After resigning under a tsunami of scandals, Pruitt’s successor, Andrew Wheeler, who lobbied for coal, chemical, and uranium companies, picked up the ball and kept running. By the time Trump left office, his government started or completed rolling back more than 100 environmental regulations, with many under the jurisdiction of the EPA like pollution from power plants and emissions from cars and trucks.

But while Regan may have sailed smoothly through his confirmation, he’s taking the helm of an agency that’s been steered off course from its core mission to protect health and the environment, as well a depleted workforce with low morale. The problems of the past four years will shape what Regan can accomplish in the next four.

The EPA’s standing as an environmental regulator was drastically eroded

There’s always a shift in priorities at the EPA when there’s a change in parties in the White House. But Trump and Pruitt went far beyond that, directly challenging the mandate of the EPA to protect health, air, water, and soil.

“It’s basically been a disaster for the environment,” Christine Todd Whitman, who led the EPA under George W. Bush, told Vox last year. “Over time the air will be less clean and the water less pure.”

Shortly after taking office, Trump signed an executive order that required federal agencies to undo two regulations for every new regulation. After being confirmed as EPA administrator, Pruitt immediately got to work.

His EPA delayed enforcement of many regulations and started to roll them back, like the 2015 Clean Water Rule, which defines the waterways that are regulated by the agency under the Clean Water Act. The agency launched 30 percent fewer cases and collected about 60 percent fewer fines than in the same period under President Obama and stayed quiet about areas that failed to meet air pollution standards. The EPA also started undoing Obama’s signature climate change policies like the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Beyond undoing regulations, Pruitt also oversaw a change in the philosophy of the agency to weigh the financial costs of regulations heavily while neglecting and downplaying the benefits. Such changes undermine the justification for regulations like those that reduce toxic emissions from power plants. He also purged outside science advisers to the EPA who received grants from the agency, arguing that they had a conflict of interest. However, the agency saw no such conflict in getting advice from scientists working with industries the EPA is supposed to regulate.

“The aim was to stack the deck to get the answers they wanted,” said Chris Zarba, a former career EPA employee who led the agency’s Science Advisory Board Staff Office and retired in 2018.

And Pruitt went after scientific research itself, proposing restrictions on findings used to inform environmental policies. He wanted to limit research used by the EPA only to results that were reproducible and disclosed details about their underlying data in the name of eliminating “secret science.” But these rules would eliminate important research based on one-off events like toxic chemical spills, and many researchers don’t publish underlying data to protect the privacy of their study subjects.

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was one of former President Donald Trump’s most productive hires in enacting a deregulatory agenda.
Ron Sach/Getty Images

On Pruitt’s watch, the EPA, which employs close to 14,000 workers, saw less than 400 new workers hired as almost 1,600 left, a decline in the agency’s workforce not seen since the Reagan administration.

But Pruitt famously racked up a long list of scandals and indiscretions as well: The EPA spent an unprecedented $4.6 million on Pruitt’s security detail, including $1,500 on “tactical pants”; Pruitt built a $43,000 phone booth; he asked an aide to scout a used Trump hotel mattress; he sent his security team to find lotion used in Ritz-Carlton Hotels; he ate too often at the White House; he got a sweetheart deal on a condo from a lobbyist; he deleted calendar records and fired a staffer for objecting; he used his job to try to get his wife a $200,000-a-year job; he traveled in first class to avoid uncivil travelers; he had his motorcade use lights and sirens to reach dinner reservations. Just to name a few.

His actions triggered more than a dozen government investigations and Pruitt was ultimately asked to resign in 2018, but not before carving out a loophole for some of the dirtiest trucks on the road.

Wheeler, Pruitt’s successor, was also productive, despite a lower profile. He oversaw the finalization of many of the rollbacks Pruitt began, like the replacement for the Clean Power Plan, the Affordable Clean Energy rule, a regulation that would be worse for the environment than doing nothing. He also helped finalize weaker fuel economy and emissions rules for cars and light trucks.

The pandemic has also given the EPA cover not to levy fines and penalties against polluters. “A combination of deregulation and Covid has made it very difficult to maintain a vigorous enforcement program,” William Reilly, who led the EPA under George H. W. Bush, told Vox last year.

Some of the EPA’s policies under Trump were tied down in lawsuits, and on his way out of office, his administration was handed several key defeats, with federal courts striking down the Affordable Clean Energy rule, rollbacks on ozone standards, and the “secret science” rule.

But some of the damage is already visible. The US has seen an increase in deaths from air pollution, in part due to weaker enforcement of air pollution regulations. And US greenhouse gas emissions began to rise (at least until the pandemic), reversing years of decline, and policies to limit this growth have only gotten weaker.

The challenge for the EPA is to make up for lost time

So as much as Regan might want to hit the ground running and tackle climate change, craft better air and water regulations, and address historical inequities, there’s a lot of ground to make up first. He faces the additional challenge of taking over a federal agency with thousands of employees and dozens of sites across the country during a pandemic.

But not all of this is Trump’s fault. In a letter last year, six former EPA administrators, Republicans and Democrats, noted that the EPA’s budget under Ronald Reagan was 50 percent higher in inflation-adjusted dollars than it is today. Staffing has declined 22 percent since 1999 and more losses may be coming soon. About one-third of EPA scientists are now eligible to retire.

“The steady deterioration of resources has undermined EPA’s readiness for the challenges ahead and the agency’s ability to adapt and respond to emerging needs,” the administrators wrote.

So Regan will have to deal with long-running budget and staffing constraints. Regan will also have to find a way to raise low morale at the agency, particularly among career civil servants who saw their work derided and neglected under the previous administration.

“Most people who go to work for the EPA want to enforce the laws,” Reilly said. “They want to do that with energy and enthusiasm.”

Political polarization is another obstacle Regan will face. Ruckelshaus pointed out in 2018 that protecting the environment is an issue that in recent decades fractured along party lines, with Republicans decrying regulations as damaging to the economy and Democrats wanting to do more to limit pollution. “What’s happened is it’s become part of the core beliefs of both parties, and as we’ve seen, once it get into that category it’s very hard to undo it, because it’s almost like a religion,” he said. “Climate change is that kind of issue. It’s too bad because these issues are based on scientific facts.” These entrenched divisions will make it harder to come to a consensus on environmental protection.

Regan is also not the only nominee Biden needs to get installed quickly at the EPA. There is a whole roster of political staff the agency needs to fill out, some of which, like the deputy administrator, also have to be confirmed by the Senate. That’s going to be key to delivering on Biden’s environmental goals. “A lot of that depends on how fast you can get people through the confirmation process,” Whitman said.

Zarba said that the EPA also needs to revamp its messaging. That’s particularly important as the main pollution sources of public concern have shifted from highly visible things like smog to less visible dangers like particulate matter and greenhouse gases.

“I think what has happened over the years — and I blame the EPA in large part for this — it hasn’t done a good job of communicating to the American public what you pay for environmental protection and what you get for it,” Zarba said. “When you do that, overwhelmingly what EPA does makes a lot of sense.”

And on climate change, the EPA needs to set its sights beyond US borders. While the US is the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, it only contributes about 15 percent of global emissions at the moment, so limiting warming this century requires other countries to act aggressively as well. “I hope that the new administration takes the international element of policy very seriously,” Reilly said. “The world is looking at the EPA.”

Some of the regulatory tasks for Regan may be simple. The EPA could drop its legal defenses of Trump-era rollbacks, and with regulations like the Affordable Clean Energy rule thrown out, Regan will have a blank slate to craft a new policy for carbon emissions from power plants.

But undoing other rollbacks may end up being far more time-consuming as the EPA will once again have to go through the regulatory process of crafting regulations, getting public comment, and surviving legal challenges. The federal courts may prove to be especially perilous for the EPA under Regan since Trump appointed more than 200 judges to federal courts and cemented a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court. These judges may be hostile to the environmental policies of the Biden administration.

At the same time, Regan set an ambitious agenda for himself. In particular, he wants a stronger focus on environmental justice and addressing disparate harms from pollution, like dirty industry disproportionately harming racial and ethnic minorities.

“You all will hear from me frequently that we do need or will need additional resources if we are to commit to solving environmental justice and equity issues,” Regan told lawmakers.

One upside is that this is not Regan’s first turn at the EPA. He started as an intern and went on to serve on staff for almost a decade in the agency’s air quality office, so the learning curve might not be as steep for him.

“A lot needs to be done,” Zarba said. “Regan has the authority to do it and can start pretty soon.”

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.