President Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan isn't just about roads, bridges and affordable housing but also about dealing with climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency's new leader says.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan says the nation's water infrastructure has been neglected for decades and is "increasingly becoming more vulnerable."
It needs to be "stronger and more resilient to face the climate change impacts that we are seeing right here right now — impacts to our wastewater treatment facilities, stormwater infrastructure to help reduce flooding," Regan says in an interview Thursday with NPR's Morning Edition.
Biden's plan includes $56 billion to modernize water systems around the country and $45 billion to replace the nation's lead water pipes, which include those that bring water to an estimated 6 million to 10 million homes.
Regan notes that lead exposure is "a serious public health issue — especially on our children, where we can see irreversible and long-term health effects, including decreased IQ, focus and academic achievement."
"So through the American Jobs Plan [the infrastructure bill], we will not only tackle public health concerns like this, but it creates good-paying jobs and helps to build a stronger economy," he says.
Reducing carbon is key to countering climate change, and energy markets are already shifting away from heavy carbon-producing sources such as coal toward natural gas and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
"Markets are driving this conversation. Technology has caught up to the conversation," Regan says.
"We have to lessen our reliance on fossil fuels. There's no doubt about that," he says. "But we also have to spur technological growth that not only reduces or eliminates the emissions, but possibly captures the emissions. It's an all-hands-on-deck approach. And so what we want to do is work with our business community, our entrepreneurs, our technology innovators."
Regan previously was North Carolina's environment secretary and worked in the EPA in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. He says it was "painful to watch the agency from the outside" as former President Donald Trump attempted to change the EPA.
"So, morale was low. But let me just say that the staff here are resilient," Regan says. "The energy level has increased. Staff are engaged. And what I've committed to is returning to scientific integrity, transparency, and the staff voices will be heard and will be a part — a major part — of the solutions that we propose to these complex challenges facing our country."
Regan says he's reviewing the decisions made under the Trump administration "to evaluate if science, facts and data were properly applied and where they were not, we will reverse course."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Federal environmental policy drastically changed during four years of the Trump administration. This morning, we've called an official who is charged with changing it back. Michael Regan is the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency. His jobs include refocusing that agency and promoting an infrastructure bill that is sure to affect the environment and climate. Infrastructure can build in environmental damage. Highways encourage people to drive more. Even better Internet uses vast amounts of electricity. So how does the United States build infrastructure that doesn't do that? Administrator Regan, congratulations on your new job, and welcome to the program.
MICHAEL REGAN: Well, thank you, Steve. Thank you for having me this morning.
INSKEEP: How is this an environmental bill?
REGAN: Well, Steve, this bill is so important for the water pollution burdens borne disproportionately by people in lower income and minority communities, as well as our rural communities. Wastewater treatment, stormwater systems that help mitigate flooding and lead service lines are in dire need of attention across this country. You know, in the United States right now, we estimate that six to 10 million homes in the United States have lead service lines. And the impact of lead exposure, including through drinking water, is a serious public health issue, especially on our children, where we can see irreversible and long-term health effects, including decreased IQ, focus and academic achievement. So through the American jobs plan, we will not only tackle public health concerns like this, but it creates good paying jobs and helps to build a stronger economy.
INSKEEP: Well, you raise something like lead, I mean, that matters even in center cities, maybe especially in center cities. Here in the nation's capital, people have to think about lead in the drinking water and test for lead in the drinking water. So I get that. But the overall idea of $2 trillion in infrastructure spending, of course, is to boost economic growth. And that is a challenge, which is how do you boost economic growth without increasing the production of carbon and worsening climate change?
REGAN: We do that by utilizing the skills of the American workforce to tackle our infrastructure, which is increasingly becoming more vulnerable, like our water infrastructure, because it has not had attention for decades. It also needs to be stronger and more resilient to face the climate change impacts that we are seeing right here right now, impacts to our wastewater treatment facilities, again stormwater infrastructure to help reduce flooding. But more importantly, issues like lead and lead lines and the impact - the public health impacts that face our children and our general public really need our attention. And this bill, this plan calls for 100% replacement of our lead lines.
INSKEEP: I want to review a little bit of the recent history of electric power in this country, which, of course, is vital to everything, vital to more and more things and yet produces an awful lot of carbon. President Obama imposed what was called a clean power plan. The idea was to reduce the amount of carbon generated through electricity, use a lot less coal, use more things. President Trump got rid of that plan and replaced it with something else is may be a better way to put it. Ultimately, though, the market reduced the amount of carbon that's being produced by changing over from coal to natural gas in many parts of the country. So what are the lessons from that? And what can the Biden administration do now?
REGAN: Well, it's a great question, Steve. And what we're doing is we are taking a look at the lessons learned from the Obama administration and the Trump administration. I think the courts have weighed in on what they liked and disliked about both rules. To your point, markets are driving this conversation. Technology has caught up to the conversation. And so we're meeting with all of our stakeholders and looking at what are the rules for the road that we can provide through regulation and policy that stimulate or continue to stimulate innovation and flexibility to increase the pace by which we reduce carbon. We want to create a level playing field, one that captures the market and promotes technologies to reduce the carbon emissions that we need to reduce right now.
INSKEEP: I think your goal is, in not too many years, to be generating electricity for this country that is carbon neutral, which on the surface would seem not only do you stop using coal, you even stop using natural gas, which produces greenhouse emissions, or you capture them some way. Is that what you have to do, we have to be entirely on renewable at some point?
REGAN: We have to lessen our reliance on fossil fuels. There's no doubt about that. But we also have to spur technological growth that not only reduces or eliminates the emissions but possibly captures the emissions. It's an all-hands-on-deck approach. And so what we want to do is work with our business community, our entrepreneurs, our technology innovators. We want to get the best and the brightest ideas, and we want to infuse that into policy thinking and regulatory structures that incentivizes, that incentivizes a rising tide for a competition on technologies that can reduce emissions to the level that this climate crisis requires us to reduce them to.
INSKEEP: I'm feeling like I hear you say this is a kind of Franklin Delano Roosevelt approach. And what I mean by that is FDR, at the beginning of his administration, didn't exactly know what he was going to do and admitted he was going to improvise. I think I hear you saying you are not sure how to get to zero emissions. You've got to figure it out over time.
REGAN: We're trusting in American ingenuity and global ingenuity. And the reality is, is that there are technologies that are on the cusp of being commercially available. But in the next 10 years, we'll see another wave of technological advancement. So we're riding that trajectory. So we believe that we can set up the right policy, instrumentation and regulatory framework to encourage continued innovation to get us to that carbon neutral goal that we know we can achieve. So it's not necessarily we'll know it when we see it. We can rely on and trust on setting the right rules of engagement will encourage businesses and technological evolution to get us where we need to be.
INSKEEP: Administrator Regan, I want people to know that you were a staffer once upon a time at the EPA, so you knew this agency before the Trump years. Now you're back at an agency that President Trump tried to change a lot. How would you describe the organization and morale when you found it upon your arrival in March?
REGAN: It wasn't the agency that I left. You know, it was painful to watch the agency from the outside and see so many of my former colleagues leaving because they were not afforded the opportunity to leverage their expertise and have their voices heard. So morale was low. But let me just say that the staff here are resilient. The energy level has increased. Staff are engaged. And what I've committed to is returning to scientific integrity, transparency, and the staff voices will be heard and will be a part - a major part - of the solutions that we propose to these complex challenges facing our country.
INSKEEP: Were you left any land mines? And by this, I mean policies or structural changes that the Trump administration made that will be very hard for you to undo.
REGAN: You know, we're taking a look at all of the decisions that were made to evaluate if science, facts and data were properly applied. And where they were not, we will reverse course. But it's not just about looking backwards. We do have to, you know, correct some mistakes that were made during the previous administration in terms of the proper application of the law, science and data. But this staff, this administration is focused on how we make up for lost time and get this agency back on track in a forward-leaning way. There are many challenges facing us from a climate standpoint, from a water quality standpoint, from a land management standpoint, an environmental justice and equity standpoint. And so we're focused on all of these priorities, and we have the ingenuity, the willpower and the know-how to get it done.
INSKEEP: Administrator Regan, thanks again for taking the time, really appreciate it.
REGAN: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Michael Regan is the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. He took over in March. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.