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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Why Michael Regan is a Transformational Pick to Head the EPA

By Kate Zerrenner
Michael Regan

The announcement last week of Michael Regan as President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator was historic: he will be the first Black American man to lead the EPA.

Michael Regan rounds out a heavy-hitting climate team

He will also be an integral part of the first-ever Climate Team, made up of some heavy hitters, including Representative Deb Haaland as the first Native American Secretary of Interior, former Governor Jennifer Granholm as the second woman Secretary of Energy, Brenda Mallory as the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy as the National Climate Advisor, and Ali Zaidi as the Deputy National Climate Advisor.

Beyond the Climate Team, Biden is assembling experts across the administration: from former Secretary of State John Kerry as climate envoy to the announcement the first climate official who will sit on the National Security Council.

Michael Regan is well-suited to lead EPA in tackling tough environmental problems. His resume is impressive, but I make that statement based on my own history with him. I worked with Michael at Environmental Defense Fund for eight years and consider him a friend. His prior work at EPA and his current position as Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality have been rightly highlighted as providing his qualifications for EPA Administrator.

Beyond those qualifications, however, my time working with him showed me what a clear goal of inclusion and equity can do for helping to achieve climate goals, especially done with determination, intellect and empathy. Michael has all of those qualities in abundance.

Another step toward engaging communities of color

In 2008, the year both Michael and I joined the organization, EDF launched a program called Climate Corps (EDFCC), which embedded MBA students in companies to find energy efficiency savings. It quickly became one of the most successful projects at EDF. To date, its participants have uncovered $1.6 billion in energy savings, equivalent to 2.2 million metric tons of carbon emissions.

Michael was one of the people that saw EDFCC’s potential reach beyond Fortune 500 companies to the public sector and nonprofits, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) and municipally-owned and cooperative utilities, many of the latter of which are often in rural areas.

As Jim Marston, former Vice President of Clean Energy at EDF - and Michael’s boss and mine - said, “Michael had the foresight to see that nonprofits and public sector institutions didn’t have the budgets that corporate hosts have to pay for fellows, so he developed a successful fundraising plan to enable EDF to pay for the fellows’ salary and training,” and therefore allow participants who would have otherwise been shut out of the process to participate.

He led the team that started this work, and his passion and drive made it a success. In 2009, the public sector work launched, and within five years, half of the country’s top HBCUs had participated in the program, including Michael’s alma mater, North Carolina A&T University. As an energy efficiency specialist, I was engaged with EDFCC from the early days, and as a former public sector employee myself, I fully supported Michael’s efforts to expand it. I led the team that engaged the first Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) - the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College and the University of Texas at El Paso.

Michael was determined from the outset that engagements at HBCUs and MSIs drew their EDFCC fellows from their own student body when possible. He recognized that it gave the fellows skin in the game, but it also raised the profiles of the institutions themselves and other students who might consider careers in climate change.

Further, the public sector work expanded from including only MBA students to include engineering and public policy students. This is an important point: engaging students from different backgrounds and with different expertise enables a system where climate change is addressed from multiple angles. It’s necessary because climate change is multi-faceted problem that has implications across the economy. Relying on traditional solutions by traditional actors isn’t enough.

Why the selection of Michael Regan is important

Michael is tough negotiator—as evidenced by his brokering a multibillion-dollar settlement for coal ash cleanup with Duke Energy while Secretary in North Carolina. But like the good parent that he is, he also knows when to pick his battles. He’s pragmatic and inclusive in every sense of the word. When thinking about how to engage others in climate and energy work, not only did he go to HBCUs and MSIs, he and his team also went to African-American churches, public housing authorities and rural cooperative electric utilities.

He recognized that every person in this country has a stake in solving the climate crisis, even if they don’t yet know it. And he also saw that engaging those who will bear the brunt of the impact of climate change aren’t often at the table when solutions are discussed. His work engaging diverse communities not only brings more perspectives in the conversation, but it also sets an example for students who want to work in climate change but may be better suited to jobs other than climate science. And for students looking for role models in positions of influence who look like them. 

Another thing that profiles of Michael Regan won’t tell you is that every person who worked for him knew their voices were valued. Every colleague will tell you that he is collaborative, whip-smart, and strategic. Every stakeholder will tell you that he is fair and inclusive. And every friend will tell you that you could have no better person to help lead this country and its people and economy to solve a big environmental challenge with compassion and humor. As Marston noted, “Michael is a special person, not just because of his knowledge about climate science and policy, but that he cares about people—those who work for him and those whose lives are affected by his work.” 

Image credit: NCDEQ

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner