Gov. Roy Cooper’s pick to lead North Carolina’s environment department faces high public expectations but a potentially rocky path to confirmation by the state Senate.
Michael Regan was sworn into office Jan. 17. Republican-led legislators last month gave the Senate authority, for the first time, to approve the Democrat Cooper’s Cabinet appointments.
If he’s confirmed, Regan will inherit a Department of Environmental Quality that businesses liked because it treated them like customers instead of adversaries under former Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration. Environmental advocates complain that DEQ was too chummy with the companies it polices, with fines and citations dropping, and hostile to opposing viewpoints.
Regan’s resume alone could inflame the Senate when they consider whether to approve him. He’s a veteran of the Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked on energy and air quality issues, and the Environmental Defense Fund, a national advocacy group for which he was associate vice president of U.S. climate and energy.
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Many Republicans detest the EPA, saying as McCrory’s administration did that the federal agency often exceeds its authority, and dismiss environmental advocates. Within a day of Regan’s appointment, the conservative Civitas Institute quickly pounced.
Civitas linked EDF to former President Obama’s climate change policy, including its “war on coal.” It linked the group to Blueprint North Carolina, a liberal coalition, on a leaked memo on how to “eviscerate” the state’s Republican leadership. Blueprint denied sending the memo.
“If Cooper was looking for a very well-connected player in the worldwide radical environmental movement – he found him in Michael Regan,” Civitas concluded.
Others view EDF as a mainstream group that is known more for collaborations with business and government than for in-your-face protests. Its trustees include a representative of Bain Capital, cofounded by 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney; billionaire investors Herb Allen and Stanley Druckenmiller; and Sam Rawlings Walton, grandson of the Walmart founder.
Cooper struck a conciliatory tone in naming Regan his environment secretary, saying he has “the government experience and diplomacy to understand that working together is the way to get things done.”
Regan, 40, is a native of barbeque-fueled Goldsboro who likes to hunt and fish. He said his past work grounded him in pragmatic approaches that protect the environment without hurting businesses. EDF has struck collaborative deals with companies including Duke Energy, Walmart, FedEx and pork producer Smithfield Foods.
“I’ve got experience looking at non-regulatory approaches as well as regulatory approaches in preserving our environment while allowing the economy to thrive,” Regan said in an interview. “I’ve worked with the business community and we’ve found win-win solutions.”
It’s unclear how the Senate will handle approval of Regan and other Cabinet appointees (or when it will happen). Senate rules say the governor’s appointments are to be referred to the “appropriate Senate committee” and that the chairman of the rules committee may file a resolution for consideration of the appointment.
Regan will take over a department riddled by staff and operating cuts by the Republican-controlled legislature, said Robin Smith, a former 12-year assistant environment secretary who is now a Chapel Hill environmental lawyer and blogger.
“The last five years it’s been a steady erosion of resources the department has to work with, and that’s got to have some impact as the economy picks up,” Smith said. “You’re already seeing some impact on the department’s ability to issue permits.”
“If they continue on that path, they’re just woefully unprepared.”
In a recent blog post, Smith sketched a portrait of a shriveled department. Among the staff reductions: 41 percent in regional water quality and water resources; 45 percent in the sedimentation program; 40 percent in marine fisheries. She reported that the times to perform core functions, such as construction site inspections and issuance of discharge permits, have already grown.
“There is a tremendous backlog in (issuing) permits, particularly in the water resources division,” agreed Preston Howard, a former state water-quality director who is president of the North Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, which represents some of the state’s largest industries. “We’d like to see that get caught up and back to issuing permits in a timely manner.”
Howard attributes the lag both to staffing cuts and to the copious amounts of staff time devoted to Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds, which legislators ordered closed following a 2014 spill.
DEQ spokesman Jamie Kritzer said the department is “aware of some concerns about a backlog within our (discharge) permitting programs, due to several factors.” The department is looking for ways to improve performance, he said.
Regan said he quickly identified a lack of resources as a problem at DEQ. He made building rapport with legislators, in hopes of improving appropriations, one of three early priorities.
The other two: Meeting with staff to identify critical issues and improving dialogue between the agency and the public.
“What we’re looking at is a comprehensive approach for stakeholder engagement and involvement,” Regan said. “This agency is looking for a balanced approach for advocates, the regulated community and the legislature.”
Problems within the department go beyond head counts. Environmental advocates say DEQ’s leadership under McCrory ignored them. Staff members say they were intimidated from speaking freely to those outside the agency, and that morale plunged.
“We’re excited to see leadership at the department that will restore an attention to sound science and a respect for agency expertise, and we’re also hopeful for much greater transparency,” said Grady McCallie, policy director of the North Carolina Conservation Network.
McCallie cited as an example the confusing health advisories, later rescinded, to well owners near Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds that led to resignation of the state epidemiologist. Last year, DEQ staff prepared a report that was critical of water-cleaning devices that GOP lawmakers had favored. DEQ published and then retracted the report, appearing to undercut its staff.
Environmental advocates would also like to see stiffer enforcement of state and federal laws. Businesses liked DEQ’s approach under McCrory of regulators as partners rather than adversaries, but say there is more the department can do.
“Businesses want processes and procedures that are fair and predictable, and a timely review of applications,” said Gary Salamido, vice president of government affairs at the North Carolina Chamber. “We’ve seen DEQ over the last few years get better at that, and we hope that can continue going forward with the new administration.”
The Chamber has urged Cooper’s transition team to weed out state rules that duplicate or exceed federal standards. In December, the North Carolina Chamber Foundation commissioned a study that will compare North Carolina’s environmental permitting requirements to those of competing states.
“The lack of predictability is the issue we hear often: Tell us what the problem is, the solution and the timeline and stick to it,” Salamido said.