Mary Nichols is done at CARB. These people might replace her

Source: By Anne C. Mulkern, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, December 6, 2020

A new boss is coming to the California agency known for its first-in-the-nation policies on clean cars, greenhouse gas emissions and other climate programs.

California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols leaves this month after 13 years on the job. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) will name a replacement, though he has not indicated when or whom his preferred candidates are.

“The Governor is committed to selecting a candidate who will advance the state’s climate leadership on a global stage while enacting innovative policies at home to clean the air our children and families breathe,” Newsom spokesman Jesse Melgar said in an email.

The appointment will reverberate nationally. The air board known as CARB enacted rules on fuel economy and tailpipe emissions that are now followed by 14 states and Washington. The agency also makes automakers offer a growing number of zero-emissions vehicles, and it runs a cap-and-trade market aimed at cutting carbon pollution.

“The California Air Resources Board is really a premier environmental agency not only for California but nationwide,” said Katelyn Roedner Sutter, manager of U.S. climate at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Who leads this is really an important voice in the future of environmental policy, at the state level, but then for other states to build on, or potentially the federal government to build on.”

The incoming chair will lead the agency as it crafts a plan to meet California’s goal to cut emissions 40% by 2030. That so-called scoping plan needs strong measures to create a path toward achieving carbon neutrality by 2045, Sutter said. The blueprint will look at all sectors of the economy and likely require a retool of several existing policies, Sutter said.

Newsom recently charged CARB with implementing his executive order banning sales of new gas-fueled vehicles after 2035. Nichols noted at the agency’s November board meeting that “the next decade is pivotal” in limiting climate change. She added that “California needs to continue to play a role in not only doing its part to address the challenge, but providing examples for other parts of the world to follow.”

Several people have been suggested as likely choices to replace Nichols, including Hector De La Torre and Dean Florez, two CARB board members; California Public Utilities Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves; CPUC Commissioner Liane Randolph; and state Assembly members Edward Garcia (D) and Christina Garcia (D).

De La Torre is seen as having the edge, said one person plugged into the process who asked not to be identified. “Hector very much wants it,” the person said, adding that the governor has interviewed De La Torre.

De La Torre declined comment, and Newsom aide Melgar wouldn’t discuss potential candidates. A new chair is expected to be appointed before the board’s February meeting.

Political connections

A Los Angeles-area resident, De La Torre served in the state Assembly from 2004 to 2010. He chaired the Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services and the Rules Committee.

He was later appointed to CARB by the Assembly and holds one of two seats focused on environmental justice, or equity for disadvantaged residents often living near sources of air pollution, such as oil refineries.

De La Torre and Florez, the other CARB member, are seen as people who could build relationships with state lawmakers, said a green group advocate who asked not to be identified to speak candidly.

“CARB has problems in the Legislature,” the person said. Some people believe if the CARB chair were a former legislator, “they will be able to maneuver and patch up relationships with the Legislature.”

The tension centers on how CARB interacts with lawmakers who get contributions from the oil industry and push back against policies adversely affecting fossil fuels, the advocate said. If the chair is a former lawmaker, they know “how it works because they’ve been on the inside.”

EDF backs De La Torre.

“He has really demonstrated the ability to lead and to be innovative and be pragmatic, and be very attuned to the need to both address climate and local air quality issues,” said Sutter of EDF.

However, a coalition of 10 leading environmental justice organizations supports Guzman Aceves. Sierra Club California also endorsed her for the job.

“This is going to be the governor’s most important appointment and will best reflect his vision, leadership and direction on how our state will protect people from the climate crisis,” said Gladys Limón, executive director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance.

“Commissioner Guzman Aceves is by far the most promising candidate to lead in meeting our state’s climate goals in an equitable manner.”

Before former Gov. Jerry Brown (D) appointed Guzman Aceves to CPUC, she was his deputy legislative affairs secretary focusing on environmental issues. She previously worked with environmental justice communities and for United Farm Workers, dealing with labor and environmental issues.

Her aides did not respond to requests for comment.

Deeper emissions cuts needed

Environmental justice groups want a CARB chair who’s “a visionary,” Limón said, and willing to implement “transformative solutions” with equity for disadvantaged residents in mind.

The California Environmental Justice Alliance dislikes the state’s cap-and-trade market, which allows businesses to buy “allowances” for excess emissions. Allowances are sold in quarterly auctions, with the sales generating billions of dollars for state climate efforts. A quarter of that money must go to programs that benefit disadvantaged communities.

Limón said that although those communities need dedicated financial investment, cap and trade is “perverse in that the continued funding is dependent upon continued pollution, the continuation of emissions of greenhouse gases.”

Sutter with EDF said her group wants to see the next CARB chair lead an effort to make cap and trade tougher.

“We need to see much more aggressive emissions reductions sooner,” she said. “We’re frankly running out of time” to limit climate change impacts.

“We think there is likely a lot more climate ambition that can come from California in the next 10 years,” Sutter added.

That’s especially true if Republicans control the U.S. Senate, she said, as climate action likely will fall to the states.