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Mary Nichols, California’s Great Environmental Warrior, Did Not Fight the Right Battles to Some

Arguably the country’s most experienced environmental official, Nichols was originally considered to be Biden’s top pick to lead the agency. But after a complaint from environmental justice groups, she faded as a candidate.

California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols, who would be considered an environmental radical in many states of the union, saw her candidacy to head the Environmental Protection Agency collapse not from the right, but the left, after a group of environmental justice advocates spoke out against her selection.

In choosing Michael Regan, North Carolina’s top environmental regular, to lead the EPA, President-Elect Joe Biden passed over Nichols, who will leave CARB at the end of the month.

Arguably the country’s most experienced environmental official, Nichols was originally considered to be Biden’s top pick to run the agency.

A letter from a coalition of California environmental justice leaders asking Biden’s transition team not to pick Nichols is what reportedly tanked her nomination.

The groups effectively reduced Nichols’ career to two perceived faults: her track record on addressing environmental racism, which they called “bleak,” and her ideological bent toward market-based policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

In the letter, the advocacy groups skewered California’s signature cap and trade policy for “further exacerbat[ing] pollution hotspots.”

“During Ms. Nichols’ tenure as Chair of CARB, she has staunchly pursued and defended carbon trading, while minimizing state policies that required direct emission reductions and other climate policy implementing programs that benefit environmental justice communities,” they wrote.

The New York Times reported the president-elect preferred Nichols but was caught off guard by the intense criticism of the impact on poor communities from the cap-and-trade policies she helped design.

In a tweet, Nichols offered her support to Regan, who made a name pursuing cleanups of industrial toxic substances and helping low-income and minority communities hit hardest by pollution.

Transforming CARB

Over a four-decade career as one of the nation’s preeminent climate regulators, Nichols, who declined to be interviewed for this story, oversaw some of the strongest industrial regulations and most innovative environmental programs in the U.S.

Next week she will end her second tour as chair of CARB, a position she’s held since 2007 after her appointment by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

During her tenure, she transformed the board from a subsidiary branch of the state’s environmental agency into a vanguard of climate change policy, banking more political clout in the world of environmental regulations than  wielded by many governors and senators.

In recent years, CARB operated as a powerful entity, sometimes to the frustration of the state’s elected leaders. Nichols is widely respected at the agency and among the state’s climate wonks, who praise her for her ability to work with a broad array of industry groups, policymakers and scientists to generate results.

“Mary operates with a mix of intellect, experience, and a fierceness that is often wrapped in a velvet glove,” said John Balmes, an air board member who served with Nichols for more than a decade.

“She knows her stuff,” said John Gioia, another board member from Contra Costa County. “In this field, knowledge counts. Because you can fight misinformation with accurate information. Mary knows how to work with industry and stand up to industry.”

During the past decade, with Nichols serving as the state’s top air regulator, California cut back emissions of planet-warming gases to 1990 levels, an official climate goal the state leapt past in 2016, four years ahead of schedule.

California also set strict limits on industrial pollution and established a low-carbon fuel standard.

Most recently, Nichols served as one of the principals in the state’s legal disputes with the Trump administration over climate and environmental policy. When Trump sought to relax federal standards and revoke California’s waiver to set its own clean car rules, Nichols helped secure a commitment from five major automakers to follow California’s latest standard

Many environmentalists credit Nichols with outflanking Trump on the issue and are hopeful California’s agreement with the companies will be adopted as a federal standard.

“California’s deal with the car companies is certainly a marker that people can use as a starting point to negotiate a single national rule,” said David Pettit, a senior climate attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In August, dry lightning storms sparked hundreds of wildfires that ripped across the state, blanketing the entire I-5 corridor from Seattle to San Diego in smoke and forcing millions of Californians to stay indoors for weeks.

With the public’s attention focused on the impacts of climate change, Gov. Gavin Newsom asked Nichols for policy ideas to accelerate the state’s transition away from fossil fuels.

Nichols’ team already had a state ban on the sale of new gasoline cars in the works, the language of which she happily provided to Newsom. He quickly issued an executive order making the policy official.

In October, Nichols said a major lesson of the wildfire-intensive year is that California needs to “be all in on eliminating all the sources of pollution” and improve “the ability of our natural environment to be able to store and sequester carbon, as well.”

Support From Arnold and Jerry As the transition team looked past Nichols, state leaders and California environmentalists kept pushing for her anyway.

After news outlets reported Biden’s team was looking for a candidate to replace Nichols, Schwarzenegger vouched for her during an online celebration of her career. The former governor said she did “an extraordinary job” in California and called her “a straight 10.”

Schwarzenegger, who once referred to Nichols as an “Alabama tick” — a creature difficult to get rid of once it’s fastened on to you — said the only “reason that is excusable for you to leave [CARB] is if you go to some higher position, which is to run the EPA in Washington.” He added that was “pushing for that with everyone that I know.”

In an interview with KQED, Jerry Brown said Nichols possesses a “unique package that is equaled nowhere else.”

“The whole list of factors that go into regulating climate change are matters that Mary Nichols, unlike few people in America, have had firsthand extensive knowledge,” Brown said. “And not just during the last 10 years, but stretching back to my first term as governor in the 1970s.”

Between stints leading CARB, Nichols served as a deputy administrator for the EPA under President Bill Clinton. She was also a founding attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Los Angeles bureau.

Sunk by Cap-and-Trade

The California cap-and-trade system that Nichols is associated with aims to fight climate change by setting limits on industry emissions of greenhouse gases and allowing businesses to buy and sell credits at quarterly state-sponsored auctions.

Businesses have generally supported this policy as an alternative to strict industrial regulations or a straight carbon tax, which are preferred by progressive environmentalists.

Schwarzenegger wouldn’t even allow discussion of a price on carbon, according to Balmes, who served on the board back then.

“It was literally against the rules,” he said. “Brown let us talk about it. But cap-and-trade had already been what California had committed to.”

Cap-and-trade allows industry to burn fossil fuels by paying others to reduce their own pollution, a tradeoff known as “offsets” that are meant to reduce the overall carbon emitted into the atmosphere.

Some researchers who have examined the program found that California’s cap-and-trade program is not reducing emissions, and one study found that the policy has not produced any “improvements in environmental equity.”

The state’s air board vehemently defends cap-and-trade as an effective way to drive emissions down while generating money the state uses to fund other environmental programs.

The auctions have raised $13.6 billion dollars with more than 50% of investments benefiting California’s most disadvantaged communities, according to CARB.

What’s Next for California Climate Policy?

With the appointment of Lianne Randolph, a former regulator at the California Public Utilities Commission, to replace Nichols, Newsom could potentially shift the state away from cap-and-trade.

Newsom’s picking a behind-the-scenes government regulator to replace a dominant and high-profile personality like Nichols could signal he wants to elevate the work of the entire board to stand out from that of its chair.

One outstanding question about the post-Mary Nichols era in California: Did her power come from her position as the top climate regulator in the country’s most populous and economically powerful state, or was her position powerful because of some particular mastery?

Meanwhile, the same environmental justice groups who sank Nichols do not appear to be enthralled with Biden’s ultimate choice of Regan, who was not on their suggested list of alternatives. After Regan’s candidacy was announced, the groups issued a less than enthusiastic statement congratulating him, but also referencing  several groups who “worked tirelessly to protect their land, water, air, and people from pipelines, logging, and toxic waste disposal in North Carolina, and experienced harm from Regan’s decisions.”

The statement said the organizations “appreciate that the Biden-Harris Administration took seriously their concerns” and hope Regan “will show courage and advance a transformational vision in standing up to big polluters and repair the harm they’ve done to communities in North Carolina and across the country.”

More mainstream environmental groups are reportedlyseething over the activists’ letter and its successful torpedoing of Nichols’ nomination.

Copyright 2020 KQED