Under President Donald Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency became an oxymoron, run by people who’d spent their careers suing or lobbying the EPA on behalf of oil and coal companies. Trump pulled out of the Paris Accords and rolled back more than 100 protections for land, air, water, wildlife and human health.
Under President-elect Joe Biden, the cabinet choices could not be more different. He’s given veteran climate hawks John Kerry and Gina McCarthy new positions with more power.
With Michael Regan, the young pollution fighter from North Carolina poised to become the first Black man to lead the EPA, Brenda Mallory, the first Black chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, and Deb Haaland, the first Native American to run the Department of Interior, the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council is calling them an “A-team of climate and environmental champions.”
But a fight over the EPA role also exposes a seismic rift within the Democrat’s climate coalition while showing the fresh clout held by those demanding environmental justice and a new way forward.
At age 44, Regan would head the agency where he once worked as an air quality specialist during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. After a stint at the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund, he was tapped by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017 to become North Carolina’s top environmental official.
While reaching a settlement with Duke Energy to spend billions on the most expensive coal ash cleanup in the nation, supporters say he lifted morale at an agency gutted by his Trump-supporting predecessor who often sided with industry over his own scientists.
That is exactly the skill set needed now, but Regan’s name did not emerge until the last few days after the Biden transition team met fierce pushback from within the climate coalition over Mary Nichols, seen by many as the consensus favorite.
As the veteran head of the California Air Resources Board, she was the architect and builder of the Golden State’s carbon cap-and-trade program and counted Govs. Jerry Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gavin Newsom and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer among her fans and advocates.
But in recent weeks, more than 70 prominent environmental groups sent a letter to Biden protesting Nichols’ “bleak track record in addressing environmental racism” while questioning whether cap-and-trade schemes ultimately do more harm than good.
“It is allowing polluters to greenwash their activities and perpetuate disproportionate impact to environmental justice communities while making climate change worse and damaging ecosystems in the process,” Chad Hanson, cofounder and director of the John Muir Project told CNN.
California caps the amount of heat-trapping gases that can be emitted there each year, forcing companies to either cut their emissions or buy carbon credits known as “offsets.” While Nichols has long argued that the plan would ultimately slow down man-made global warming to the benefit of everyone, cap-and-trade does not account for the kind of toxic air and water pollution that plagues “fence-line communities” of color, making them more vulnerable to everything from asthma to cancer to Covid-19, according to numerous studies.
Environmental justice advocates have been making this argument in California since 2009 but since cap-and-trade started as a bipartisan, market-based solution, Nichols “thought we were just ideological and really dismissive of any concerns of the environmental justice community,” said Caroline Farrell, executive director of the Center On Race, Poverty and the Environment.
“She hasn’t changed. And given the racial reckoning that the country is in, having an EPA administrator with a very poor track record would have been terrible,” Farrell told CNN.
As her stock began falling, Nichols held a Zoom seminar with the electric car advocacy group Veloz, billed as a retrospective of her career.
“I was part of a group of kids actually who thought of ourselves as being activists on the front lines of being for peace and justice,” she said after moderators highlighted her presence at the civil rights March on Washington in 1963.
After she touted Newsom’s latest executive order to phase out the sale of new gas-powered passenger vehicles by 2035, Schwarzenegger made a surprise appearance. “I think the only reason that is excusable for you to leave (California) is if you go to some higher position, which is to run the EPA in Washington. So, I’ve been pushing for that idea with everyone I know, to make it clear that you’re the best,” he said.
But Biden went with Regan, an up-and-comer with few enemies to stall confirmation in Washington and the experience of growing up with asthma amid the pollution of eastern North Carolina.
“We are encouraged (by Biden’s picks),” Farrell said, “and we appreciate that they took our concerns seriously.”
The fight over this single nomination is just a taste of how hard it is to please everyone while legislating a problem that affects everything, from food, shelter and transportation to foreign policy, public health and the American legacy of dumping pollution in the poorest corners of the nation. And every day, new science underscores the urgency of the problem while often undermining popular solutions and promises to be “carbon-neutral.”
“The science is past cap-and-trade,” said Chad Hanson. “The conversation should not be about carbon neutrality or shifting emission from one place to another. It needs to be about direct reduction of emissions and drawing down a lot more carbon by protecting a whole lot more forest.”
He points to a provision in the California cap-and trade rules that would allow logging companies to cut down old growth forest — a vital carbon sink — as long as they plant new trees. But a plantation of saplings won’t sequester carbon for decades.
“We have to pull carbon down as we stop putting it up there,” Hanson said. “And the policies that Mary Nichols has been promoting undermine both.”