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UPDATE 3-Biden plans to tap North Carolina official to lead U.S. environmental agency

(Adds reaction, background on policy)

Dec 17 (Reuters) - President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate Michael Regan, North Carolina’s top environmental regulator, to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, three sources with knowledge of the discussions said on Thursday.

If confirmed by the Senate, Regan would become the first Black person to run the EPA and one of the key players in Biden’s agenda to reverse environmental rollbacks under outgoing President Donald Trump and fight climate change by bringing the U.S. economy to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The EPA administrator is the top U.S. environmental regulator.

Biden is in the midst of building his Cabinet ahead of his Jan. 20 inauguration, and is expected to unveil Regan as part of a core team to tackle global warming that will also include picks for energy secretary, interior secretary and White House climate coordinator.

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, Regan 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 the Environmental Defense Fund, a green advocacy group.

Environmental organizations and representatives of the fossil fuel industry praised the choice.

“Regan understands that tough environmental goals tempered with economic and technological reality produce the best approach on everything from climate change to more local problems,” said Scott Segal, an attorney for the law firm Bracewell LLP, which has petroleum companies as clients.

Jim Marston, former head of the Environmental Defense Fund state initiatives program, said he was not surprised to see Regan emerge as the 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,” Marston said.

The three sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Regan was in the final stages of being vetted by Biden’s team and that an offer to lead the agency could be made soon.

A Biden transition team spokesman declined to comment.

Efforts to reach Regan were not immediately successful.

TOUGH CONTEST

California’s environmental chief Mary Nichols had been seen as the front-runner for the EPA job for her efforts to fight climate change by curbing power and transportation emissions in the most-populous U.S. state.

But Biden’s team had become concerned 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 criticized Nichols, arguing she had not done enough to protect low-income and minority communities suffering from industrial pollution - an accusation she rejected.

Regan’s role as head of EPA would present him huge challenges, from enacting Biden’s climate goals to rebuilding staff morale after four years during which Trump’s administration sought to roll back green protections to ease fossil fuel development. Trump also abandoned an international accord aimed at fighting climate change.

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 Will Dunham, Scott Malone, Chizu Nomiyama, Sonya Hepinstall, Alexandra Hudson)

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