Jun 12, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Exclusive: EPA administrator talks AI, environmental justice

EPA Administrator Michael Regan and a group of people walking in a hallway

Regan (center) arrives to testify at a congressional hearing May 3. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan tells Axios the Biden administration is focused on decarbonizing the economy using advanced technology like AI.

Why it matters: The EPA's renewed push to engage with the private sector on issues of climate and environmental justice — which Regan promoted with a visit to a Google campus last week — comes amid mounting criticism facing the agency.

Driving the news: Before heading to a Silicon Valley clean energy summit Thursday, Regan stopped by Google's campus to talk with chief sustainability officer Kate Brandt about tech innovation and how the private sector is pushing the envelope on equity and climate action.

  • He spoke with Axios after the visit about AI as well as the administration's broader environmental justice initiatives.

What he's saying: Although no official partnership between Google and EPA has been disclosed following the visit, Regan tells Axios his team "definitely saw the power of artificial intelligence at Google" and took a "very strong look" at how some of the ways the tech giant is applying AI could be "beneficial" to the agency.

  • "As an administration, we want to harness the power of artificial intelligence, but we want to do it in a correct way, a way that benefits, and not hamstrings, all of the problems that we're trying to solve," says Regan.

The intrigue: AI is at the center of a regulation debate emerging in Congress, with lawmakers beginning to discuss some of the concerns surrounding its expansion.

  • "The President is also leading the way in looking at the advantages and some adverse impacts of artificial intelligence," says Regan.
  • The U.S. signed a "first-of-its-kind" agreement with the U.K. on Thursday to partner on AI and clean energy, among other economic relations, reports Reuters.

The big picture: Under the Biden administration, EPA hasn't shied away from a public commitment to environmental justice from the top down. According to Regan, the federal agency has "integrated it into our very DNA."

Yes, but: The administration's approach to climate and environmental injustice — a centerpiece of the president's re-election campaign — has been drawing criticism from advocates.

  • One example: Activists converged outside of EPA headquarters in April to protest the agency's "slow pace of new climate and clean air regulations" per Inside Climate News.
  • Plus, concerns have been raised over the exclusion of race in screening protocols in a White House tool unveiled last year created to identify investments for communities in historically disadvantaged areas.
  • "I wish that all of these problems could have been solved yesterday," says Regan. "We definitely recognize the sense of urgency, and we're acting with a sense of urgency."
  • He noted that EPA's budget "continues to reflect the need for more staff in that area," citing "significant cuts" to the budget under the Trump administration.

Meanwhile: Last month, the EPA administrator testified before a Senate panel in a bid for a substantial increase in fiscal year 2024 funding, where he said the declining budget has adversely impacted staffing, in what he described in a prior hearing as a "catch-up game."

  • Regan cited the staffing issue in his interview with Axios: "We really need the resources and the people power to really ensure that we're protecting public health while we combat the climate crisis."
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