RALEIGH (AP) — North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s choice of an environmental advocate to lead the state environmental agency represents a break in department leadership from the previous Republican administration, which critics alleged was too cozy with business and utilities.
Cooper named Michael Regan on Tuesday as his top environmental regulator in a move praised by environmental advocacy groups. Regan worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Democratic and Republican presidents before joining the Environmental Defense Fund in 2008. He worked with EDF for eight years and left the job in September.
Under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who left office last weekend, the department was run with a more business-friendly approach that treated those it regulated as “customers.” His second department secretary, Donald van der Vaart, took a more combative approach with federal environmental policy, joining attempts to block President Barack Obama’s efforts to reduce power plant emissions.
Cooper called Regan, a Goldsboro native who went to N.C. A&T State University, a leader in environmental advocacy while announcing the appointment but also stressed his experience working with energy and business.
“Michael cares deeply about clean air and water not only that that can keep us healthy, but boosts our economy,” Cooper said at an Executive Mansion news conference during which he also introduced Jim Trogdon as his pick to lead the Department of Transportation. “Michael has demonstrated skills at bringing stakeholders together to create and enforce sound environmental policy.”
At EDF, Regan was involved in the group’s climate and energy programs designed in part to promote alternate energy options, reduce pollution and address climate change.
“This appointment is a clear shift from the McCrory administration as Gov. Cooper recognizes that the … secretary must be someone who makes decisions rooted in science, not politics,” Dan Crawford with the N.C. League of Conservation Voters said in a news release.
McCrory’s environmental legacy was defined largely by a massive coal ash spill along the Dan River in February 2014. The spill led to state legislation that forced Charlotte-based Duke Energy, the country’s largest electric company, to excavate or close off pits holding the ash, which contains toxic materials.
McCrory, a former Duke Energy employee, said his administration addressed lingering coal ash problems more than any previous governor, but environmentalists questioned the reduction of a multimillion-dollar fine against the utility for groundwater contamination at its coal-burning plants in North Carolina.
The Cabinet picks were the first announced by Cooper, who served as attorney general for 16 years before being elected governor. He was sworn in to his new office on New Year’s Day. Cabinet members are now subject to a confirmation process by the state Senate as a result of a law passed by the Republican-led General Assembly just two weeks before Cooper took office.
Cooper already has gone to court over another law Republicans passed in December that restricts his ability to control operations of state elections. Asked whether Cooper would now challenge the confirmation process, spokeswoman Noelle Talley wrote by email: “These highly-qualified individuals will serve North Carolina well and they will be getting to work shortly.”
Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said Senate members will look forward to reviewing the qualifications of Cooper’s Cabinet choices “and exercising their constitutional authority to vet them” in the session beginning this month.
When asked whether Regan’s time with Environmental Defense Fund could become an obstacle to his confirmation, Cooper said it was important “to appoint the very best people to serve in each of these positions.”
Cooper said Regan and Trogdon would begin working in a week or so.