ELLIOT: NCs environment chief has experience, but will politics prevail?

Just one block of Jones Street separates North Carolina’s Legislative Building from the headquarters of the state’s environmental agency, but sometimes it has seemed like the widest chasm in the state.That wasn’t the case last week, though, when Michael Regan, Gov. Roy Cooper’s choice to head the agency, sailed through his most important hearing in the state Senate’s confirmation process. After answering questions for less than an hour, Regan passed the Agriculture-Environment-Natural Resources Committee unanimously.As well he should have. A Goldsboro native, Regan is more than qualified to implement Cooper’s environmental agenda as secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality. He holds degrees in environmental science and public administration, and has worked at the U.S. EPA.Regan also said all the right things in his hearing. A constant refrain was that he liked to bring various parties to the table to work through disputes. That’s a good strategy, and building trust as an intermediary can be an important function of the agency. Regan has a better chance to succeed through these sorts of collaborative efforts than his predecessors at the agency, for one important reason.When appointees of Gov. Pat McCrory’s ran the agency, the environmentalist industry had no reason to build relationships or solve problems. In fact, any semblance of working with the agency would have been counter-productive. Their focus was to make McCrory look as extreme as possible, make the environment seem as dirty as possible, and make fundraising as easy as possible — for themselves.Regan, then, has a chance to get much done at the agency. He is not only a former regulator, he also has been employed by the environmentalist industry itself. Regan worked as Associate Vice President of U.S. Climate and Energy and Southeast Regional Director of the Environmental Defense Fund. (Is that one title or two?) At any rate, the Environmental Defense Fund — despite is eco-terroristic-sounding name — is not the worst of the environmentalist groups. It does have a history of collaboration with other interests, so Regan should get the benefit of the doubt about working with all groups.Overall, Regan was inoffensive at the hearing. For instance, he made some common-sense comments about working with permitees rather than being trigger-happy on enforcement.”We would love to have self-reporting versus catch people,” Regan explained. “The goal isn’t a ‘gotcha’ game, or a ‘catch’ game — it’s ‘how can we work together to protect the state’s natural resources.'”Those comments are strikingly similar to the views of McCrory’s environmental chiefs. Yet when John Skvarla and Donald van der Vaart said those things, they were accused, loudly and often, of being shills for polluters. To date, there does not appear to be any outrage in the offing for Regan’s sensible philosophy. How curious.While the hearing went very well for Regan, there are bound to be conflicts ahead for the General Assembly and the secretary. One area is staffing levels. The General Assembly has trimmed DEQ, formerly the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, significantly over the past decade, mostly by moving divisions to other agencies. Almost all of what is left are the divisions that are purely regulatory — air, water, and waste.Lately there have been allegations that businesses are waiting too long for permits, and agency leadership has suggested that head count is too low. This is where Regan may conflict the most often with the legislature.The last time a Democratic administration dealt with a Republican-controlled General Assembly, legislators knew the pattern well: cry that there’s not enough staff, then use the “shortfall” between the governor’s proposed budget and the one that passed over her veto as a campaign talking point. Meanwhile, agency leadership have very little incentive to improve permit times, since that would go against their argument for more funding and staff.Because of this cycle, the level of trust between the General Assembly and the environmental agency was at a low point when McCrory came into office. While the relationship did not automatically improve merely because Republicans controlled both branches, it has improved somewhat. For now, Regan may get the benefit of the doubt from legislators. After all, the state’s surging economy means more permit applications, so workload has likely increased.But if Regan and Cooper begin to sing the same old song regardless of facts and trends, Regan will quickly see the old, painful pattern of distrust emerge on Jones Street. The widening of that chasm won’t be good for Cooper, Regan, or North Carolina.Drew Elliot is a member of the North State Journal’s editorial board, separate from the news staff. 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