California’s top air official at center of nomination war for Biden’s EPA chief

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, December 7, 2020

Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board, is widely admired among many environmentalists for countering the rollback of climate regulations coming out of Washington under President Trump. But she has detractors who see a lackluster record regarding poor and minority communities in the Golden State.

The job of the next administration’s environmental enforcer, who will take over a demoralized agency that will quickly shift gears toward new rulemaking that tackles climate change, may prove to be one of the most challenging in Biden’s Cabinet.

Others being discussed for the job in addition to Nichols include Collin O’Mara, the president of the National Wildlife Federation who ran the natural resources department in Biden’s home state of Delaware, and Heather McTeer Toney, who ran the agency’s Southeast office under President Barack Obama.

Nichols allies say like the 75-year-old California official for the decades of experience she would bring to the EPA.

The latest politician to throw their weight behind Nichols is Arnold Schwarzenegger. California’s former Republican governor crossed party lines in 2007 when he picked Nichols to chair the California Air Resources Board, the clean-air agency tasked with cleaning up smoggy skies in Los Angeles and other cities.

“She’s a big, big star,” Schwarzenegger told radio host and Washington Post contributing columnist Hugh Hewitt last week. “I hope that she gets to be the head of the EPA.”

California’s cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions, which Nichols helped put in place in 2013, is looked to both in the rest of the United States and abroad as an answer to climate change. Under the program, California hit its emissions reduction goal for 2020 ahead of schedule. She has experience working in Washington, too, having run the EPA’s air and radiation office under President Bill Clinton.

More recently, Nichols hammered out a secret deal with four major automakers to maintain tailpipe emissions standards more stringent than those the Trump administration locked in. The move undercut one of the EPA’s most aggressive rollbacks of climate regulation while cementing her reputation as a regulator who can negotiate with big businesses.

“Mary Nichols is brilliant,” Schwarzenegger said. “I think she would really be great and she will be able to be a person that will work with the car companies and work with the fossil fuel companies, and to do it in a sensible way.”

In another significant endorsement, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer has asked the Biden transition team to pick Nichols. The New York Democrat is a proponent of a program to trade-in program to spur drivers to buy electric and other low-emissions vehicles.

But more than 70 advocacy organizations are urging Biden not to pick Nichols, alleging she has a poor record on environmental justice.

In a harshly worded letter sent to the Biden transition team last week, Greenpeace USA, Friends of the Earth and other groups say that Nichols has not prioritized the needs of the low-income communities that often bear the brunt of pollution.

At the heart of their criticism is the agency’s carbon trading program itself, which can have the unintended effect of concentrating pollution in neighborhoods where it is the cheapest to operate.

“As warned by environmental justice advocates, cap and trade has increased pollution hotspots for communities of color in California, exacerbating pollution health and safety harms,” the groups wrote.