Michael Regan has served as Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality since 2017 and now he’s ready to enter the national stage as President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
If confirmed, he’ll play a major role in countless decisions impacting air and water quality, climate change, food production, crop protection and rural America in general. In an exclusive interview, Regan told Agri-Pulse that he recognizes the nation’s 46th president has a very aggressive agenda, “but we cannot meet our goals without having a very strong partnership with agriculture.” He also acknowledged that “we can't regulate our way out of this solely. It will take innovation. It will take partnership. It will take voluntary programs, all of the above, to see our way through this climate emergency and agriculture has such an important role.”
Raised in the eastern part of North Carolina, he grew up, hunting and fishing with his father and his grandfather, who was a small farmer who grew peanuts and soybeans, along with a few hogs and chickens. As a result, he says he understands “the importance of agriculture and the culture of agriculture" and that “agriculture has a role in helping us be successful in environmental protection.” Regan says he believes that environmental protection and economic prosperity are not mutually exclusive, but can go hand in hand, and agriculture fits in that narrative. In this far-ranging interview, we asked him a variety of questions, ranging from crop protection to biofuels and environmental justice. Some answers have been edited for brevity.
Several sources tell us that, in North Carolina, you had an “open door” policy and were willing to listen to both sides of an argument. What should folks expect that to look like in Washington, D.C.?
It's my goal to have it look very similar. Agriculture is such an important industry in North Carolina is such an important industry to this country as well. And so, I've always felt that it's very important to use the power of convening and pull all of our stakeholders in and have very robust conversations, quite frankly about some fairly complex issues. I believe transparency is critical in engaging our stakeholders, is critical and while we might not always agree on the outcome. The goal is to get folks to buy into the journey. We've had some success with that in North Carolina, and I plan to apply that same recipe if confirmed to the way, EPA approaches our national discussion as well.
The list of environmental issues currently facing you at EPA is very long and President-elect Joe Biden has a very ambitious environmental agenda. How will you prioritize these issues during your first six months?
The President has a very ambitious yet needed environmental agenda. I'm proud to, if confirmed, run point on the EPA agenda. The honest answer is we're going to have to walk and chew gum at the same time. The first goal is to reinvigorate the organization and the staff, make sure that I'm a great partner to the staff and that they know their voices will be heard. We're going to follow the science. We're going to follow the law. And we're going to apply that to the President's ambitious climate agenda, which has a critical role for the ag industry. We're going to tackle water quality issues, again, agriculture will be a significant partner there. And then we're going to look at environmental justice and equity and agriculture is no stranger to that topic, either. So, as we rebuild the workforce, reinvigorate the staff and put science and rule of law first. The President's agenda is a very ambitious agenda. But there is a critical role for agriculture in that agenda. And I plan on being a good partner to agriculture.
How quickly do you anticipate you’ll be able to get your own staff in place and refill numerous open position? Do you plan to have someone on your team charged with farm and rural outreach?
Luckily for us, EPA is full of very talented and dedicated public servants; people who have dedicated their lives, and are very passionate about protecting our environment, while growing our economy. And so, we have some really good folks in place. We will work with Congress on ensuring that we have the smoothest path forward. My confirmation, obviously, would be the first I’d hope to be confirmed. But after that we'll work with Congress to line up the confirmation for all of the other political appointees that require Senate confirmation. There are quite a few leadership roles that will require that. But in the meanwhile, will rely on the steady hand of the civil servants who are not politically appointed, but very passionate about ensuring EPA’s agenda moves forward.
We absolutely plan to have dedicated resources to farm and rural outreach and agricultural issues, whether that's an individual or a team of people that we bring together, to be sure that agriculture is a priority. We're going to take a look at that on day one.
My goal is to leverage all of the resources at my fingertips to advance solutions for the agriculture industry. So, any stakeholder or any group of individuals that can pull up to the table and help us tackle these very complex issues . . . we're going to have an open door policy we're going to convene everyone we can, there's going to be an all hands on deck approach.
Farmers and ranchers have been focused on the scope of the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) for many years. What’s your recommendation for the next steps under a new Biden Administration?
This is another opportunity for me to first of all, consult with my legal team at EPA to determine what are all of the options on the table, in terms of moving forward from a legal perspective. While they are evaluating that and advising me on the legal path forward, I also plan to convene all of the stakeholders that have been impacted to begin thinking through what do we need to do to advance this topic. So, we'll look at the legal path forward and I'll consult with counsel, but we'll also reach out to our stakeholders about what are the avenues outside of litigation to advance this issue. This is a very important issue and it's been a topic of discussion in North Carolina, it's been a topic of discussion across this country. What I do know is we have to choose a path forward that protects our water quality, protect our natural resources, but also is not overly burdensome on our small farmers. I think there's a way to do it, but it will require conversations and all hands on deck.
Expanding biofuel usage and implementing the Renewable Fuel Standard is another big topic of concern. Tell us more about how you view biofuels and their role in addressing climate change. What’s your opinion on small refinery exemptions?
The president has not been shy in indicating that biofuels, especially advanced biofuels, will be critical to help meet his ambitious climate agenda. I agree with that. Advanced biofuels will be very important. We will take a look at all of the science, we'll take a look at the laws that are on the books, in terms of the applicability of these advanced biofuels, the application of new technology, and we will push that agenda with our agriculture partners in a way that demonstrates that agriculture can be part of the solution for mitigating this climate emergency.
I'll spend a lot of time with the experts at EPA, evaluating the Renewable Fuel Standard, and its application. And the law is pretty clear in terms of small refinery exemptions. What I can pledge is, we will follow the law and will be transparent about how we're following the law and the decisions that will be made by the agency will not be done as a surprise but will be made through a transparent stakeholder engagement process where everyone can at least understand how the agency arrived at decisions.
Wyant is president and founder of Agri-Pulse Communications Inc. For more news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com.