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Environment

With climate change focus, Biden filling environmental, interior posts

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) - (This Dec 17 story corrects historic significance of Michael Regan’s nomination in 2nd paragraph to say if appointed, he would be the first Black man to run the EPA. Also corrects references in previous updates of story.)

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sign is seen on the podium at EPA headquarters in Washington, U.S., July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ting Shen

President-elect Joe Biden tapped North Carolina’s top environmental regulator, Michael Regan, as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief and Democratic congresswoman Deb Haaland as interior secretary as he builds his team to combat climate change and safeguard the environment.

If confirmed by the Senate, Regan would become the first Black man to run the EPA and Haaland would become the first Native American Cabinet secretary, adding to a historically diverse incoming Democratic administration.

Their nominations were announced by Biden’s transition team in a statement on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, a top Biden adviser, U.S. Representative Cedric Richmond, tested positive for the coronavirus after briefly interacting with Biden earlier this week when the president-elect was campaigning on behalf of Democratic U.S. Senate candidates in Georgia.

Their encounter was in open air and both men were wearing masks, the transition team said, meaning Biden was not in “close contact” as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Biden tested negative for COVID-19 on Thursday. Richmond will quarantine for two weeks.

Biden also participated on Thursday in an interview on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” where he defended his son, Hunter, who is under investigation by federal prosecutors over his taxes.

“We have great confidence in our son. I’m not concerned about any accusations been made against him. It’s used to get to me. I think it’s kind of foul play,” Biden told Colbert.

After the excerpt of Biden’s interview was released, transition aides said his “foul play” remark referred to those who have tried to use Hunter Biden as a political cudgel, not to the federal investigation itself.

The probe into Hunter Biden’s taxes are related to his business activities in China and elsewhere that some Republicans in Congress say merit the appointment by the Justice Department of a special counsel.

Regan and Haaland are among the key officials, also including the secretaries of energy and transportation and the head of a new office leading domestic climate policy coordination at the White House, in Biden’s bid to make U.S. policy greener after four years of Republican Donald Trump’s presidency.

“This brilliant, tested, trailblazing team will be ready on day one to confront the existential threat of climate change with a unified national response rooted in science and equity,” Biden said in a statement.

Biden plans to pursue a goal of moving the United States to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – a once-unimaginable task that would require the world’s second-largest emitter to overhaul major parts of its economy, from cars, trucks and planes to power plants, farms and buildings.

Biden’s focus on climate marks a sharp change from Trump’s administration, which had Washington exit the Paris climate accord and work to soften or dismantle climate regulations the administration deemed harmful to the economy.

The Interior Department employs more than 70,000 people across the United States and oversees more than 20% of the nation’s surface, including national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. Haaland has said she would seek to expand renewable energy production on federal land to fight climate change, and undo Trump’s focus on bolstering fossil fuels output.

“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” Haaland said on Twitter. “Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land. I am honored and ready to serve.”

SPOTLIGHT ON THE PANDEMIC

Biden, set to take office on Jan. 20, has also vowed to prioritize the fight against the coronavirus that has killed nearly 310,000 Americans. He must contend with the logistical challenges of a mass inoculation and overcome skepticism among some Americans about the vaccine’s efficacy and safety.

A vaccine made by Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE is expected to become widely available next year.

Biden will publicly get vaccinated next week, according to transition officials. At age 78, Biden is in the high-risk group for COVID-19, which has taken a toll on the elderly.

Vice President Mike Pence, who has headed the White House coronavirus task force, will receive the vaccine in public on Friday, the highest-profile recipient to date. U.S. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement he would get vaccinated soon also.

Trump will get the vaccine when his medical team decides it is best, according to the White House.

Trump, who frequently downplayed the severity of the pandemic and feuded with top U.S. public health officials, was hospitalized in October after testing positive for COVID-19.

All over the country, doctors, nurses and delivery people are wrestling with challenges in the vaccine rollout including delays, anxiety and cooling the vaccine properly.

A panel of outside advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration endorsed emergency use of a second vaccine by Moderna Inc on Thursday.

Many Americans remain skeptical. Only 61% of respondents in a Reuters/Ipsos poll, conducted from Dec. 2 to 8, said they were open to getting vaccinated.

That is short of the 70% level public health officials have said is needed to reach herd immunity - achieved when a large portion of a given population is immune to a disease - either through exposure or vaccination. Roughly 5% of Americans are believed to have been infected by the novel coronavirus.

Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Wilmington, Delaware, and Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia, additional reporting by Andy Sullivan, Laura Sanicola, Steve Gorman and Steve Holland; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall and James Oliphant; Editing by Scott Malone, Noeleen Walder, Alistair Bell and David Gregorio

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