Michael S. Regan ’98 has a clean-energy focus as chief of N.C.’s Department of Environmental Quality.
North Carolina has its share of nationally visible environmental issues.
Destructive, forceful hurricanes. Seeping, buried ash from coal-fired power plants. Legal battles surrounding a proposed 600-mile natural gas conduit known as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is slated to have its last leg in the state.
At the same time, the state is looking for ways to create the environment of the future, setting ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the number of zero-emission vehicles on the roads and reducing energy consumption in state-owned buildings.
The task of solving the environmental problems of the past and finding the way forward falls to the state’s top environmental steward, the secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. Since 2017, the position has been filled by Michael S. Regan, a 1998 graduate of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.
Before he was the state’s top proponent of “going green,” Regan was Aggie blue and gold.
“A&T absolutely prepared me for this role,” said Regan, whose bachelor’s degree is in earth and environmental sciences from the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Design. “It strengthened my understanding of who I am and what I can do for society.”
Appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper, Regan oversees a program of science-based environmental stewardship that seeks to work with the business community, not against it.
“My role is to get people to see the win-win,” he said. “We can’t just legislate our way out of these situations, we have to get business to work with us and adopt a big-picture model to take care of the environment and our communities.”
Business and government partnerships, Regan said, are the best way to grow infrastructure in sustainable ways that protect air and water quality, bring assets to rural areas, and give a voice to underserved populations who have not always been treated sensitively by economic growth and infrastructure projects.
“We have to nurture a globally competitive economy at the same time that we protect the environment and public health,” he said. “One way to do this is to develop these partnerships.”
A native of Goldsboro, Regan became interested in the environment growing up, hunting and fishing in Bladen County with his grandfather and his father, who Is also an Aggie.
“I always enjoyed the outdoors growing up,” Regan said. “I also had some allergies and characteristics of asthma, which could be exacerbated by high-ozone days, so I learned pretty quickly about the connection between the environment and people’s quality of life.”
After coming to A&T as a biology major, he felt drawn to earth and environmental science as an academic extension of his interest in the outdoors. The welcoming environment on the HBCU campus was a pleasant surprise, too.
“A&T was a cultural awakening for me,” he said. “I really enjoyed the rich history, the notable alumni, the lessons about cultural heritage. The professors all seemed personally invested in helping students thrive. I felt understood.”
Godfrey Uzochukwu, Ph.D., director of the Waste Management Institute, soon emerged as a mentor.
“I spent a lot of time with Dr. Uzo, setting up the Waste Management Institute,” Regan said. “He really pushed me.”
After graduation, Regan took an internship with the Environmental Protection Agency in North Carolina. The internship led to a full-time position. Regan spent the next eight years with the EPA, eventually serving as a national program manager responsible for designing programs aimed at reducing pollution and improving energy efficiency and air quality.
Regan left the EPA to join the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group known for its work on global warming, ecosystem restoration, ocean health and human health, all with a science-based, business-informed approach. As associate vice president for U.S. climate and energy, and the nonprofit’s Southeast regional director, Regan led the agency’s efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change and air pollution.
He left the EDF with the intention of starting a unique consulting company, M. Regan and Associates, LLC, designed to focus on bringing clean-energy resources to rural communities.
“My goal was to engage with state agencies, such as the Department of Commerce, and with energy providers, to show them how clean energy could be used to improve rural communities and give them the same benefits that urban centers have,” he said.
North Carolina is primarily rural; 80 of the state’s 100 counties fit the category in terms of population density, according to the N.C. Rural Center. These smaller communities often lack the infrastructure needed to promote growth and improve residents’ quality of life.
“In urban areas, there’s a constant effort to use the electric grid more efficiently; in rural areas, not so much,” Regan said. “If the rural areas have access to clean energy, then they can recruit business, which would in turn develop the infrastructure that they need – a hospital, for example.”
An agenda for clean energy
Regan’s plans took a turn when he met Roy Cooper at a fundraiser in 2016, while Cooper was on the campaign trail for governor.
“I was inspired by his clean energy vision,” Regan said. “So I shared my resume with his team.”
Cooper appointed Regan as environmental quality secretary after the 2017 election. Immediately, the agency was tasked with enacting an ambitious agenda.
High on the list was water quality.
In addition to coal ash, emerging perfluorinated compounds called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are among the manufacturing byproducts that contaminate public water supplies. Some of these chemical compounds have been linked to health problems, including forms of cancer; others require further study.
“We need to figure out the appropriate level of protection for the public health while also keeping manufacturing competitive,” he said.
In October 2018, Gov. Cooper issued an executive order to address climate change and transition to a clean-energy economy. The plan, developed by the Department of Environmental Quality, lays out an ambitious series of goals for the state to achieve by 2025. “Executive Order 80” order calls for a statewide reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions to well below 2005 levels; a reduction in energy consumption in state-owned buildings to 40 percent below 2003 levels; and an increase in the number of zero-emission vehicles to 80,000.
“Business has an interest in sustainable energy, particularly in recruiting and retaining younger workers, who demand that business pay attention to these things,” Regan said. “As technology evolves, it becomes easier for them to comply with environmental rules, and the market expands.”
One of the key components of Executive Order 80 is the Clean Energy Plan, which charts a path for the state to improve its energy grid and add clean sources of energy production. Improving infrastructure, such as building electric-vehicle charging ports, is included in the plan. Work on the plan has been ongoing since its adoption in September 2019, with the “risk and resilience plan” set to be completed next month.
As industries expand, Regan said, the effect on some communities – especially economically disadvantaged and minority areas – can be disproportionately negative. The 16-member Secretary’s Environmental Justice and Equity Board, the state’s first board to advise on environmental impacts in various communities, was established last year to provide public feedback and oversight for the department’s processes.
“Many people think of clean air and water as a civil right,” Regan said. “People of every socioeconomic class want to protect these things. We have to make sure that our policies are thought through so that inequities don’t occur.”
A past inequity brought to right was the state’s landmark agreement with Duke Energy to excavate more than 80 million tons of coal ash from the state’s remaining coal ash impoundments, rather than cap them in place. The largest coal ash cleanup in the nation’s history, the agreement was approved by the court earlier this year and final approval of the closure plans is underway.
“This closes the chapter on the outdated practice of storing coal ash in open, unlined pits in North Carolina, and protects the public health and the environment,” Regan said in reacting to the court’s decision in February.
Being a part of the governor’s cabinet is an honor, Regan said; one that grew out of lessons learned on A&T’s campus.
“The investment that the university and the professors made in me personally helped to make me who I am today,” he said. “I’m proud to be a graduate of N.C. A&T.”