President Joe Biden’s pick to run the U.S. Environmental Agency has pledged to marshal the agency’s resources to help meet the 2025 goal for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.
Michael S. Regan, appearing for his Feb. 3 confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, also said he was looking to see if he could re-create a “Bay czar” position on his staff to coordinate restoration efforts among all federal agencies.
Regan, who since 2017 has been secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, said he learned firsthand that the Bay was a “national treasure” during a nearly 10-year stint with EPA earlier in his career.
“You do have my commitment that we will look for the resources, all of the resources that we can bring to bear, to protect the Chesapeake Bay,” he said in response to queries from Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD. Regan also said he would advocate within the Biden administration for other federal departments and agencies to provide funding and assistance to the Bay restoration effort.
Questions about the EPA’s role in the Bay cleanup were some of the softer ones Regan fielded during a generally harmonious confirmation hearing.
Republican senators pressed him on how President Biden’s executive orders to stop work on the Keystone pipeline and end oil and gas leasing on federal lands threaten jobs in the fossil energy industries. They seemed satisfied with Regan’s assurances that he would meet and work with all affected parties and was committed to leaving no communities behind in the Biden policy shift to fighting climate change.
Cardin and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland’s other Democratic senator, urged Regan to recommit the EPA to a more central role in overseeing and coordinating regional efforts to meet Bay restoration goals by the agreed-upon deadline.
“We’re going to need you front and center here now to make sure that we hit our goals under the Chesapeake Bay [Watershed] Agreement for 2025,” Van Hollen said. “All states can do better, but some states are really lagging behind, including the state of Pennsylvania.”
“Absolutely,” Regan replied, “it is my goal and desire to mobilize all of the resources we need at EPA to be a partner to these states so that we meet that 2025 goal.”
Van Hollen followed that by pointing out that the EPA has been sued by Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia, as well as by environmental groups, for not taking more aggressive action against Pennsylvania shortcomings in its latest Bay cleanup plan.
“We’d like to resolve that,” he said. Regan didn’t provide a response, and Van Hollen didn’t ask for one.
Cardin did press Regan to re-establish a senior adviser position in the EPA administrator’s office to focus on the restoration of the Bay and the Anacostia River, as had existed during the Obama administration. It’s a plea that 13 House members from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia likewise made in a Feb. 1 letter to the Biden administration.
The Bay adviser or “czar” post was dropped by the Trump administration, which sought unsuccessfully to eliminate or severely curtail Bay restoration funding in the federal budget. Congress repeatedly rejected the proposed cuts and then even increased funding last year.
Cardin said the senior advisers under the Obama administration had played an important role in coordinating the states’ restoration efforts and in advocating for funding and other help from other federal departments and agencies.
Regan noted that he had already pledged to establish similar positions at the EPA for coordinating work on agricultural and environmental justice issues. He said he was trying to find funding for a Bay adviser slot, too, but said he was hemmed in by cuts made under Trump in the EPA’s staff and overall budget.
“So we’re being creative as to where we can get the resources to do that,” he explained. “What I can assure you is we have adequate resources to execute on our obligations to protect the Chesapeake Bay, and we’re looking for additional resources to hire that coordinator to assure that we get all of our targets on time.”
Jason Rano, federal executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, tweeted during Regan’s hearing that it was “great news” to hear him pledge to mobilize EPA resources and work with the states to meet the 2025 restoration goals.
Something that environmentalists may not find as heartening were comments made by Tom Vilsack at his Feb. 2 Senate hearing to be confirmed as secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who had an earlier stint as agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, told senators from farm states that he would advocate for increased use of ethanol, which is primarily produced from corn and soybeans.
The EPA sets the amount of ethanol blended into fuels, and Vilsack told senators at his confirmation hearing he would work to “make sure folks at EPA fully understand and appreciate the benefit of this industry.”
Increased demand for ethanol over the fifteen years has driven up crop production across the nation and has been blamed for increasing nitrogen runoff from farm fields. Some studies, for instance, have blamed increased ethanol production for exacerbating water quality problems in the Gulf of Mexico.
The overwhelming majority of the remaining nutrient reductions needed to meet the Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals, according to state-written plans, need to come from controlling runoff from farms across the watershed. All states have struggled to reduce nutrient pollution from agricultural lands, in part because actions to plant forest buffers or nutrient-absorbing cover crops are largely offset by increasing demand for farm products.
Editor-at-Large Karl Blankenship contributed to this article.