RFF is releasing a new episode in its Policy Leadership Series Podcast, which highlights conversations with leading decisionmakers on environmental and energy issues at RFF’s flagship Policy Leadership Series events. In this episode, RFF President and CEO Richard G. Newell and US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan discuss the Biden administration’s climate priorities, the importance of economics in environmental regulations, and how environmental justice informs Regan’s leadership.
Visit the event webpage to watch a video recording of this conversation.
Listen to the Podcast
- Michael Regan: “I was so excited that the president made racial justice and equity and environmental justice a centerpiece of the administration. Far too many Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income communities bear the highest burden of pollution. At the same time, we all know that they tend to suffer first and the worst from extreme heat, rising seas, raging wildfires, storms, floods, and pollution in general.” (2:53)
- Richard G. Newell: “[Environmental justice] is an incredibly important issue and one that, as economists and analysts at Resources for the Future, we’ve been very focused on. We’re finding that having the information available and the analytic methods that we need in order to understand the impacts on specific communities—not only in the current environment, but also the consequences of the actions that might be taken in future policy—are really important areas.” (6:07)
- Michael Regan: “As we look at climate change, we just can’t regulate our way out of it. I’ve spent a lot of time with our sister agencies, especially the Departments of Energy and Commerce, to take a look at what economic incentives we have out there, the investments we’re making in various technologies, and how our regulations complement all of these investments … All of these bring economic pressures to bear.” (10:02)
- Michael Regan: “Sound science and economics are critical for the design of strong and sensible public health and environmental standards. One of the great achievements of environmental science and economics is that, instead of being an obstacle to regulation, we now use benefit-cost analysis to support smart regulations that promise enormous returns on society’s investments and a cleaner environment.” (13:11)
The Full Transcript
Elizabeth Wason: Welcome to the Policy Leadership Series Podcast from Resources for the Future. In every episode, leading global decisionmakers speak to RFF President & CEO Richard Newell about big environmental and energy policy issues. In this episode, Richard speaks to Michael Regan, the 16th administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency. Their conversation took place on August 30th.
Richard G. Newell: Administrator Regan, welcome again, and thanks so much for joining us for this Policy Leadership Series event.
Michael Regan: Richard, thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here, and I’m looking forward to this conversation.
Richard G. Newell: I'd like to start by discussing your path to the US EPA. Could you tell us a bit about the personal experiences and background that helped to set you on this path in pursuit of environmental causes and public service, and how those may have influenced your goals at EPA?
Michael Regan: Well, I grew up in eastern North Carolina hunting and fishing and developing an appreciation for the outdoors with my father and grandfather. Spending that quality time with them meant a lot to me. It was great to be outdoors and just exploring nature. Growing up, I did have respiratory illnesses that were exacerbated by pollution, so at any given moment, if there was a high ozone action day or lots of pollution, I could not be outside experiencing that personal time with my family. From a very early age, I knew and began to understand the connection between our natural resources, pollution, and public health, and I have always focused on that.
I also grew up in an agricultural community. It was natural for me to gravitate toward environmental science and natural resources. I got my BS degree from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. My first internship after college was with the United States Environmental Protection Agency in research at Triangle Park, North Carolina. Things flowed very well, and I have to say, my parents were both public servants, so public service was part of my upbringing. It all just came together.
Richard G. Newell: We share that in common. I spent eleven years down in North Carolina—the Triangle area. It’s a really beautiful state.
You've made environmental justice a major priority for EPA. Could you give us some key examples of how that priority is playing out across the various facets of EPA's mission and actions?
Michael Regan: I was so excited that the President made racial justice and equity and environmental justice a centerpiece of the administration. Far too many Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income communities bear the highest burden of pollution. At the same time, we all know that they tend to suffer first and the worst from extreme heat, rising seas, raging wildfires, storms, floods, and pollution in general.
We're seeing the consequences of decades of disinvestment in Americans’ physical and healthcare infrastructure. Unfortunately, that burden has fallen mostly to communities of color. We saw that with COVID-19, which magnified the daily injustices facing these communities. When the President took office, he signed a slate of executive orders that would marshal the full force of the federal government behind advancing environmental justice and racial equity.
I'm excited that we have a president who understands it and has embraced it. He’s allowed the EPA to move forward very aggressively. Take one example: lead in drinking water. Right now, in the United States, the EPA estimates that between 6 and 10 million homes in the United States have lead service lines. We know that the impact of lead exposure is detrimental, especially to our children. We also know that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the irreversible and life-long health effects of lead poisoning. That's a good example of how this administration’s EPA has hit the ground running. I've been on the ground in Flint, Michigan, and also Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Detroit. I've learned so much about what these communities are struggling with, whether it be lead in drinking water, or the disproportionate impact of pollution on air quality, and just quality of life.
: It's been exciting to join an agency that has a rich history in focusing on environmental justice. We're marrying that with the president's goals for racial equity and highlighting environmental justice. The last thing I'll say is it's gone well beyond rhetoric: when we look at the president's leadership with the bipartisan infrastructure deal, which includes about $55 billion to accelerate water infrastructure improvements, we're looking at real resources being mashed with some of the problems that we've seen over the past few decades. The President also has the Justice40 initiative, which aims to devote 40 percent of all benefits—whether it's the $55 billion for the Build Back Better Plan, or just the investments coming from the federal government—40 percent of those resources will stay in communities to be focused on clean up, education, and economic development. The EPA is in lockstep with this administration, and we're excited about the future of environmental justice and equity.
Richard G. Newell: Thank you for that. It’s an incredibly important issue and one that, as economists and analysts at Resources for the Future, we've been very focused on. We’re finding that having the information available and the analytic methods that we need in order to understand the impacts on specific communities—not only the current environment, but also the consequences of the actions that might be taken in future policy—are really, really important areas. I fully agree.
I want to turn to climate and to the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. This continues to be an important tool in the set of different emissions reduction policies. We're familiar with the different actions that are taken with regard to tailpipe standards for automobiles. But I want to talk about power sector emissions and ask your views on how the agency is currently thinking about regulating power sector emissions under the Clean Air Act, given the ongoing debates about the limits of EPA authority, the experience with the Affordable Clean Energy [ACE] rule, and the Clean Power Plan rules in the past.
Michael Regan: The power sector, rightfully so, is a very important sector. We've really focused on hydrofluorocarbons [HFCs] and transportation. Next month, we're going to focus on the oil and gas industry and look for deep cuts in emissions of methane. But the power sector is equally important to all of those that I just mentioned. The EPA is obligated under the Clean Air Act to put in place emissions guidelines for CO2 pollution from existing power plants, especially in the wake of the DC Circuit’s January decision vacating the previous administration’s ACE rule. In my confirmation hearing, I committed to taking a fresh look at this issue by specifically building on the lessons from prior efforts in this area and being informed by engagement with a broad range of stakeholders. We learned a lot from the Clean Power Plan, and we saw what didn't work with the ACE rule.
Right now, we're working with EPA staff to determine what those specific next steps are. I want to emphasize that the next steps that we take will be informed by prior experiences but will also be guided by science, guided by the law, and guided by our Clean Air Act obligations, with the goals of making climate progress, protecting public health, advancing environmental justice, and preserving affordable and reliable electricity. We're going to be very focused on this particular industry. Luckily, we're seeing the markets push for cleaner energy. There are plentiful technologies, new advanced technologies that we can be thoughtful about. I feel good that, as we look at both regulating traditional air pollutants and carbon from the power sector, we're going to design a roadmap that will engage stakeholders and get those reductions that we're all looking for.
Richard G. Newell: It seems that there are also some important points of connection with the infrastructure bill that's pending, and also with the reconciliation bill, which appears will have major potential investments in the power sector. There is connectivity in terms of what one can do on the regulatory front and the incentives and investments that are being made on the budget front.
Michael Regan: Absolutely. There's a direct tie there, and this is part of the brilliance of the president's whole-of-government approach. To your point, we know that as we look at climate change, we just can't regulate our way out of it. I've spent a lot of time with our sister agencies, especially the Departments of Energy and Commerce, to take a look at what economic incentives we have out there, the investments we're making in various technologies, and how our regulations complement all of these investments. Also at the EPA, I'm taking a look at the existing regulations we can tie to those air quality regulations, like effluent guidelines, looking at water quality implications, and our Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule that looks at the cleanup of coal ash. All of these bring economic pressures to bear. We also take a look at what technologies are available and economic incentives to drive towards a cleaner future.
Richard G. Newell: What about industrial sector emissions? Any developments on that from EPA?
Michael Regan: We are having an all-of-the-above approach. We are looking at industrial sector emissions—the good news is we're taking this one bite at the time—but also looking at the cumulative aspect of our rulemaking authority and the social costs of carbon and these pollutants, thinking about the technologies that are available and that can cut across sectors, and then looking at all of our regulatory authority in both the traditional sense and the nontraditional sense. I believe we're on the cusp of getting very significant air quality reductions and climate benefits because people are more educated, there's more science, we understand the economics around it, and the markets and technologies are calling for more climate benefits and air quality pollution reduction. This agency is definitely in a multimedia, multi-operative role. We're proud to be here, and we've got a president who supports it. To your earlier point, he's going after a budget, and he's going after a bipartisan infrastructure deal that will complement all of these regulatory opportunities.
Elizabeth Wason: Each episode of RFF's Policy Leadership Series Podcast is made possible by listeners like you. The series provides thoughtful conversations with leading experts to better connect and inform our community on the latest environmental and economics issues. And you can help us. By supporting RFF, you join us in our mission to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economics research and policy engagement. Learn more about contributing to RFF today by visiting rff.org/support.
Richard G. Newell: I want to turn to economic analysis. You mentioned the social cost of carbon and other ways in which economic metrics and incentives enter into environmental progress. Could you say a bit about how you view the role of economic analysis in informing environmental regulation and policy?
Michael Regan: It's so important. Sound science and economics are critical for the design of strong and sensible public health and environmental standards. One of the great achievements of environmental science and economics is that, instead of being an obstacle to regulation, we now use benefit-cost analysis to support smart regulations that promise enormous returns on society's investments and a cleaner environment. As we can see from the accelerating and worsening impacts of climate change, ranging from wildfires out west to the Category 4 storms in the Gulf Coast, there's a tremendous cost to inaction that has often been missed in assessing the benefits of controlling harmful emissions. Resources for the Future's cutting-edge research has been pivotal to EPA's ability to quantify and value the benefits of our regulations.
On day one, President Biden reaffirmed the basic principle that robust economic analysis can and should help advance regulatory policies that improve the lives of the American people. We must ensure that our economic analysis fully accounts for benefits, including those that are uncertain or are difficult to quantify. This is important. You've asked a very important question, and it's an area we're working to improve on—capturing the benefits of policies and programs that reduce all pollutants, but especially greenhouse gas emissions.
Richard G. Newell: I don't know whether this has come up explicitly, but there's also the nexus between economic analysis and benefit-cost analysis and environmental justice—analysis that gets more granular in understanding the benefits and costs of different approaches on particular communities—and this is an area of very important work. I don't know if that has come up explicitly. The Justice40 Initiative and the EPA screening tools—these are all tools that we have to incorporate more attention to the distributional effects of different actions on particular communities.
Michael Regan: That's absolutely right. When the previous administration bailed on the social cost of carbon and looking at basic economic analysis, RFF's research jumped in, filled that void, and helped the EPA and other federal partners respond. Now, we're taking all of that and responding to the president's charge for revised social costs of greenhouse gas estimates. But to your point, it goes beyond that. It does delve into the types of protective policies and regulations that we want to put in place for all communities, but especially those who have been disproportionately impacted. Too many Black and Latinx, Indigenous, or low-income communities have continued to suffer disproportionately. It's going to be the strong, progressive economic tools and in-depth analysis that ensure that we protect our vulnerable populations, not just against climate change, but also for the traditional pollutants that have plagued these communities for far too long.
Richard G. Newell: We're approaching six months since your confirmation as EPA administrator. I don't know if that's felt fast to you, but these are still early days. But what would you regard so far as EPA's biggest achievement today in your tenured EPA?
Michael Regan: I would say we've hit the ground running on climate change. The President set forward a very ambitious goal of looking at regulating emissions from light-duty vehicles early this year. We started with reestablishing California's authority to enforce greenhouse gas standards so that states can lead. We recently announced the proposal to strengthen light-duty standards weakened by the prior administration, as well as plans to reduce other harmful air pollutants along with the greenhouse gas emissions from heavy-duty trucks. I mentioned earlier that in the month of September, per the president's executive order, we will propose new, strong standards to reduce methane emissions from new and existing oil and gas sources. That's going to be something that has never been done as aggressively as we plan to do it, and I'm counting that as a victory. With HFCs, we set forth a rule to phase down HFCs in the United States by 85 percent over the next 15 years a couple of months ago.
We're looking forward to powering forward with that. And as you and I just discussed, we're taking a fresh look at our options for both regulating existing and new power plants. We've learned a lot from our previous actions, and we plan to roll those into a very aggressive approach to look at how we regulate coal plants in the power sector.
Finally, I'd say that we announced new Energy Star standards to advance the efficiency of heat pump technology and fast chargers for electric vehicles. We're also committed to launching new and expanded partnership programs to accelerate emission reductions in homes and buildings. So, we've hit the ground running in terms of voluntary programs and regulations, but we've also strengthened scientific integrity.
Shortly after I was confirmed, I sent a memo out to all the EPA staff outlining our plans to review and update agency policies, processes, and practices that were rolled back by the previous administration that undercut sound science. In environmental justice, I asked all of my senior staff to give me a full accounting of how environmental justice and equity fits within their respective programs, from policies to regulations to contracts and procurement. We're starting to get feedback on that. Whether it's regulations and policy, or scientific integrity, or environmental justice, I can say that the president has set the bar, and the EPA is starting to deliver on many of those things.
Richard G. Newell: Yeah, that's a lot in a short period of time. Any challenges or surprises along the way, or lessons learned from the past six months?
Michael Regan: The past six months have been very insightful. I will say that leadership matters, and I'm very proud to serve for this president. During the previous administration, we saw an EPA that was really harmed in a number of ways. Rebuilding the agency has been a priority for me because there were some steps lost in the previous administration—that was surprising: to see just how damaging the last four years were not only to some of our policies but to the morale here. There is no doubt that we have some rebuilding to do internally at EPA, and that's especially true when it comes to our employee morale. Under my leadership, I've pledged that the voices of career staff and EPA scientists and experts will be heard.
I understand, during the previous administration, there were times when the workforce felt distant from the mission that first brought them to EPA. We want to revive that, so we're going to live that mission. I'm confident that we will revive the agency to where it once was. That was a bit of a surprise, but what isn't a surprise is how resilient the staff is here, and so while we rebuild morale, they are laser-focused on how we move beyond targets and goal setting and get into the implementation and execution. I'm excited to harness their energy and continue to push the President's agenda.
Richard G. Newell: Now turning a bit to the future. What are your aspirations for your time at the EPA, and what do you believe success looks like as EPA administrator?
Michael Regan: It's about how we work to ensure that our communities see themselves in the future that we're building, and how people see their lives improve because of the work that we do. I want this agency to walk and chew gum at the same time. We have to focus on climate change, and the impacts that we're seeing on public health and to our environment, but we also want to focus on some of those traditional air quality and water quality issues, especially when we think about these complex issues around PFAS [per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances] and our crumbling drinking water infrastructure and wastewater systems, so climate change, resiliency infrastructure, good quality drinking water, cleaning up our brownfields and our Superfund sites, and doing all of this work in a way where we rebuild in our trust with our environmental justice and our tribal communities, so that everyone knows we're using this opportunity as a rising tide to protect all communities.
That requires us visiting underserved communities and our tribal partners, taking time to meet with these local leaders and communities, and listening to their concerns. That's what I've attempted to do in the first six months: traveling to all these different cities across the country. I hope we can do that for the entire four years. That really makes a difference.
Richard G. Newell: Just in reaction to what you just said: it is easy to get very focused and very important to be focused on the climate challenge, but the EPA does have many other environmental issues that, let's call the more “traditional” environmental issues of drinking water and brownfields and waste management and many other things—and so, your analogy of walking and chewing gum at the same time—there's a lot in EPA’s portfolio and there are some very, very big challenges to focus on. But once again, thank you, Administrator Regan. It's really been a true pleasure.
Michael Regan: Well, thank you, Richard, and thank you for your leadership. Thank you for RFF's leadership over the past four years, filling that gap, and being a solid partner to EPA today. All of what we've discussed can't be accomplished without good solid data, good sound science, and very strong economics, and you are all providing that service as a great partner. We're very proud of that partnership.
Richard G. Newell: I appreciate that. Thank you so much. Have a great day Administrator Regan.
Michael Regan: Thank you.
Elizabeth Wason: That was Richard Newell, President & CEO of Resources for the Future, in conversation with Michael Regan, the 16th administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. If you like what you heard, remember to like or favorite RFF's Policy Leadership Series Podcast on your podcast platform of choice, where we will release new episodes with leading environmental and energy policy decisionmakers. You also can find recordings from our Policy Leadership Series events at rff.org/pls and receive updates about RFF's events, and podcasts at rff.org/subscribe. The live event was produced by Hillary Alvaré. Sarah Tung, Donnie Peterson, and Justine Sullivan. Music is from Blue Dot Sessions. RFF podcasts are managed by me, Elizabeth Wason, and made possible by you, our listeners. You can contribute to RFF today by visiting rff.org/support. Thank you for joining us.