WASHINGTON — President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will nominate Michael S. Regan, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, according to three people on the Biden transition team.
Mr. Regan became Mr. Biden’s top choice only in recent days, two people familiar with the selection process said. The front-runner had for several weeks been Mary D. Nichols, California’s air quality regulator, but she faced significant criticism from liberal groups who accused her of not doing enough to address issues of environmental racism in her state.
Mr. Biden also has been under pressure to make his cabinet choices more racially diverse. If confirmed, Mr. Regan is expected to bring a strong focus on racial equity to the agency.
“It signals that the Biden administration is serious about getting the E.P.A. back to its core mission to protect the environment and public health as well as ensure strong, meaningful steps are taken to advance environmental justice issues,” said Brian Buzby, the executive director of the North Carolina Conservation Network, a coalition of environmental groups.
Mr. Biden has vowed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and along the way eliminate fossil fuel emissions from the power sector by 2035. If the Senate remains under Republican control and resistant to passing climate legislation, it will fall largely to the E.P.A. to enact regulations that can curb planet-warming pollution from power plants, automobiles and oil and gas sites.
A longtime air quality specialist at the E.P.A. working under both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, Mr. Regan later worked for the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group. In 2017, Roy Cooper, a Democrat, defeated Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, in North Carolina and tapped Mr. Regan to lead the state environmental agency.
There he replaced Donald R. van der Vaart, a Trump administration ally who has questioned the established science of climate change and fought Obama-era rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and championed a pro-business agenda of deregulation in North Carolina.
Supporters of Mr. Regan said he improved low morale and emphasized the role of science at the department. Several called it an obvious parallel to what he would be expected to do at E.P.A. where Andrew Wheeler, President Trump’s administrator and a former coal lobbyist, has discouraged the agency from working on climate change, and independent auditors have identified a “culture at the top” of political interference in science.
“It’s eerie how it has mirrored what happened to E.P.A.,” said Dan Crawford, director of government relations at the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters who called the choice of Mr. Regan to lead the federal agency “refreshing.”
Mr. van der Vaart in an interview called Mr. Regan a “nice guy” but said the Department of Environmental Quality under his leadership had made poor decisions, including in a settlement with Duke Energy over the clean up of coal ash that he argued could lead to rate hikes for customers.
He pushed back on the notion that morale took a hit under his leadership. Regarding climate change policy, Mr. van der Vaart said, under Mr. Regan’s leadership “precious little has been done in any event so I’m not sure where the improvement was specifically on that issue.”
The selection of Mr. Regan is in many ways a conventional choice. Democratic presidents have a history of poaching E.P.A. leaders from state environmental agencies. Both Gina McCarthy and Lisa Jackson, who both ran the agency under President Obama, had been the heads of state environmental agencies; Ms. McCarthy in Massachusetts and Ms. Jackson in New Jersey.
But Mr. Regan’s name only first surfaced on Sunday after weeks of speculation that Ms. Nichols of California had a lock on the job.
Ms. Nichols, a champion of aggressive regulation, would have faced fierce opposition from Republicans, something for which the Biden team was prepared. But, several people close to the transition said, Mr. Biden was caught off guard by intense criticism of Ms. Nichols from liberals who argued that the cap-and-trade policies she helped design for California allowed industry to continue to pollute, disproportionately harming poor communities.
In Mr. Regan, people close to the Biden transition said, the president-elect hopes to find a candidate who has not made many enemies on the left or the right and who can also move quickly to map out an aggressive agenda.
He has been a key figure in helping Governor Cooper carry out his pledge to achieve carbon neutrality in North Carolina by 2050, and oversees the state’s climate change interagency council, a working group of state agencies set up to meet that goal. In September, Mr. Regan outlined a plan that included cutting the power sector’s emissions to 70 percent below 2005 levels in the next decade and significantly ramping up clean energy development.
And, in January, Mr. Regan’s agency struck a far-reaching settlement agreement with Duke Energy and environmental groups to require the utility to dispose of more than 76 million tons of submerged coal ash in lined landfills. It will be the nation’s largest coal ash excavation.
Coral Davenport contributed reporting.