Michael Regan hugs trees.
But the presumptive secretary for the Department of Environmental Quality also shakes hands with business executives, who commonly chafe at the regulations that keep those trees standing.
“There’s nothing wrong with hugging a tree,” Regan told a crowd of 150 North Carolina Chamber members on Tuesday. “But protecting the environment and a having a strong business community are not mutually exclusive.”
The two previous –and unpopular — DEQ secretaries, John Skvarla and Donald van der Vaart, made similar comments when they began their respective reigns. What sets Regan apart is his experience with the Environmental Defense Fund. EDF is no Greenpeace; it’s known as a mainstream group that forges partnerships with major corporations: McDonald’s, Smithfield, Duke Energy and Walmart. Yet Regan’s embrace of clean energy, energy efficiency and environmental justice breaks from the business über alles approach of the last four years.
During Regan’s tenure at EDF and EPA — at the agency he served under both Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — Regan learned to thread the needle between environmental protection and business interests. “”There are non regulatory and regulatory approaches to protecting the environment. I was at the nexus of policy and politics,” Regan said. “Managing scientists, spending time with stakeholders, trying to get complicated rules out of the agency. What I learned is that everyone wants a level of certainty, to be heard and to participate in a fair process.”
Regan said his priorities include “unleashing the expertise at DEQ.” That expertise and knowledge, forged over decades by career employees, was chained to political considerations under Van der Vaart. Regan also plans to address the backlog of permits and “increase transparency and stakeholder engagement.”
“I’m not afraid to ask the tough questions,” he said, as many DEQ division chiefs sat in the audience.[Tweet ” I can’t do my job without a respectful relationship with the legislature”]
Regan can expect to field tough questions during his Senate confirmation hearing, particularly regarding his time at EDF. During a special session in mid-December, Republicans invoked a little-used statute allowing them to hold confirmation hearings for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s cabinet picks, presumably to derail their nominations. Those hearings, expected to be contentious, are scheduled to begin Feb. 8.
Already the hard-right faction of the Republican Party, led by the Civitas crowd, has labeled Regan a radical — which he clearly is not. However, support from the chamber and its membership could help calm legislative turbulence. So could Regan’s personal history: In addition to his environmental and policy bona fides, he is an African-American from Goldsboro, an area hard hit by Hurricane Matthew. His ties to eastern North Carolina also prime him to address, and possibly begin to resolve, the environmental justice issues associated with industrialized swine farms. If Senate lawmakers fail to confirm Regan, they risk alienating voters in that part of the state.
“I’m reaching out to legislative leadership,” Regan said. “They are one of our most important partners. I can’t do my job without a respectful relationship with the legislature.
“I want to create an open, inclusive agency,” he went on. “To work with stakeholders, to find creative solutions to complex situations.”