By Jarrett Renshaw, Laura Sanicola and Valerie Volcovici
(Reuters) - U.S. President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate Michael Regan, North Carolina's top environmental regulator, to head the Environmental Protection Agency, according to three sources with knowledge of the discussions.
If confirmed, Regan would be the first Black man to run the EPA and would become one of the key players in Biden's sweeping agenda to fight climate change by bringing the U.S. economy to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
His nomination would end a competitive contest to be named the nation's top environmental regulator that included California's environmental chief Mary Nichols, who had been seen as the front-runner for her efforts to fight climate change by curbing power and transport emissions in her state.
The Biden team had become concerned, however, that a climate fighter from left-leaning California could have a hard time getting confirmed in a politically-divided Senate, and that Regan would be less controversial, one of the sources said.
Environmental groups in California had also criticized Nichols, arguing she had not done enough in the state to protect low-income and minority communities suffering from industrial pollution - an accusation she rejected.
People close to Regan said they were not surprised he emerged as a top choice to lead EPA.
"He could talk with, work with industry. And his own personal history allows him to really relate... to working class folks who are the workers in plants that need to be regulated," said Jim Marston former head of the Environmental Defense Fund's state initiatives program where Regan previously worked.
The sources, who asked not to be named discussing the matter, told Reuters that Regan was in the final stages of vetting by the Biden team and that an offer could be made soon.
A Biden transition team spokesman declined to comment.
Efforts to reach Regan were not immediately successful.
BIG COAL SETTLEMENT
Regan, 44, brings years of experience dealing with fossil fuel industries in his home state of North Carolina, including overseeing a roughly $9 billion settlement agreement with utility Duke Energy for the nation's largest clean-up of coal ash.
Prior to serving as secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, he worked at the EPA in its air quality and energy programs under presidents of both parties, and also worked on climate change and pollution initiatives for EDF.
His role as head of EPA would present him huge challenges, ranging from enacting Biden's politically controversial climate goals, after four years during which President Donald Trump's administration had sought to roll back green protections to ease fossil fuel development.
The policy whip-lash has left many agency staffers with low-morale, according to sources at the agency.
The EPA has become politically charged over the past decade after Republicans accused former President Barack Obama of using the agency improperly to fight climate change and impose regulatory burdens on polluting energy industries that provide millions of jobs.
Biden and other Democrats have argued since that fighting climate change can create jobs and spur economic growth by fostering new clean energy industries to replace those in traditional drilling and mining.
(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia, additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici and Laura Sanicola; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Scott Malone, Chizu Nomiyama, Sonya Hepinstall, Alexandra Hudson)