Newsom can put his stamp on California’s world-leading air board

Source: By DEBRA KAHN, Politico • Posted: Wednesday, November 4, 2020

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a news conference at Cal Expo in Sacramento

Newsom’s office signaled that the governor wants to focus on both climate change and air pollution. | Daniel Kim/The Sacramento Bee via AP, Pool, File

SAN FRANCISCO — Gov. Gavin Newsom has a major appointment looming — and it has nothing to do with Sen. Kamala Harris‘ seat.

Newsom has an opportunity to put his stamp on the Golden State’s pioneering environmental policies by appointing the influential chair of California’s leading policymaking body on climate change and air pollution. Already, potential leaders are jockeying for the position before California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols departs after more than a decade at the helm.

The battle is laying bare tensions over the future of the agency that could determine how the state will rein in both conventional and greenhouse gas pollution. The air board’s policies not only affect California but have national and international reach, such as its tailpipe emissions standards that are stricter than the federal government’s.

In letters to Newsom, environmental justice groups are advocating for a chair who will steer the agency away from its cap-and-trade program that allows companies to pay for permits to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. The groups want a greater focus on conventional air pollution — still a major issue in the Los Angeles basin and the San Joaquin Valley — and believe cap-and-trade lets companies still pollute at the source.

Industry trade groups view the program as a relatively cheap way to meet the state’s emission targets and advocated for the Legislature to reauthorize it in 2017 over environmental justice groups’ objections.

The growing influence of environmental justice groups, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, are also amplifying calls to name a person of color to chair a board that is currently 75 percent white.

“It’s a critical position to fill,” said Adrian Martinez, an attorney with Earthjustice whom environmentalists are backing as a potential appointee. “Whoever it is is going to have to pass major policies and regulations in the coming years. And it’s going to be against pretty significant opposition from some in industry. I think it’s a barometer of how serious we are about clean air and climate change, who’s selected.”

The top internal candidate is Hector De La Torre, a former Democratic assemblymember and mayor from Los Angeles County who has been on the board for nine years. De La Torre has Nichols’ support, sources told POLITICO on condition of anonymity.

Former Sen. Dean Florez, a Democrat from Bakersfield who’s been on the board for six years, is another candidate who currently sits on the board.

As former lawmakers, De La Torre and Florez would be well positioned to improve diplomatic relations with the Legislature, which has bristled in recent years at the agency’s broad authority. In 2016, CA AB197 (15R) imposed six-year term limits on the board’s 14 voting members and added two lawmakers in non-voting positions.

Nichols has served as chair for 13 consecutive years through three different governors — as well as during Gov. Jerry Brown’s first stint as governor in the 1970s. She has steered the state’s climate programs through their inception and set up a multi-state resistance to President Donald Trump’s rollbacks of the state’s auto emission rules.

Her replacement will have to double down on reducing greenhouse gases and conventional pollutants to meet the state’s 2030 climate target; its new 2035 goal of ending sales of new internal-combustion cars; and its air pollution targets for Los Angeles and the Central Valley.

The new chair will also have to continue defending the state’s right to regulate vehicular greenhouse gas emissions if President Donald Trump wins reelection or work with Joe Biden’s administration to restore and accelerate joint state-federal emissions standards.

Newsom’s office signaled that the governor wants to focus on both climate change and air pollution.

“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,” spokesperson Jesse Melgar said in a statement.

The agency is also due to reexamine its suite of climate policies in 2022, which could provide an opening for the next CARB chair to shift course on cap-and-trade and other policies.

State lawmakers extracted a pledge this year from California EPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld to evaluate how much CARB should depend on cap-and-trade to meet its emissions targets, relative to other programs.

Lawmakers sympathetic to environmental justice concerns proposed in 2017 reforming cap-and-trade by raising the price of allowances, which would have encouraged companies to reduce emissions at the source rather than buying permits. Florez said he would recommend invalidating the cheaper permits that companies bought early in the market in order to encourage them to fix or replace high-emitting equipment instead.

“It has to be somebody focused on pollution at the source as much as chasing a climate change legacy,” Florez said. “The chair has to be able to ask the question, ‘Is the cap-and-trade program really working, for those in front line communities?'”

Environmental groups have floated a long slate of names from outside the board. A dozen environmental justice groups submitted nine names to Newsom’s office in August, including Martinez, Bay Area Air Quality Management District Deputy Executive Officer Veronica Eady, former Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, and several current state officials, including CalEPA’s Blumenfeld, CalEPA Deputy Secretary Yana Garcia and Arsenio Mataka, environmental adviser to Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

They followed up that letter with another one in September highlighting Public Utilities Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves in particular. And earlier this month, an overlapping set of 25 environmental groups sent a letter calling for “fresh leadership” and explicitly asking Newsom not to pick De La Torre.

De La Torre alienated environmental justice groups last year by voting to approve the agency’s Tropical Forest Standard, which set up a way for the state or other governments to eventually accept carbon offsets from rainforested countries. EJ groups fiercely opposed the standard because they said it would lead to indigenous groups losing their land and would buttress the cap-and-trade system.

“There’s been some concern about Hector in terms of his kind of commitment to environmental justice overall,” said Caroline Farrell, executive director of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. De La Torre declined through a CARB spokesperson to comment.

A Republican consultant said Newsom would likely try to preserve legislative goodwill, especially after bypassing lawmakers in September with an executive order for CARB to ban new gas-powered passenger vehicles by 2035.

“I think at the end of the day, he’s asking for trouble if he gives the EJ community whoever’s at the top of their list,” said Rob Stutzman, deputy chief of staff to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appointed Nichols as chair in 2007. “That won’t go over well in the Legislature.”

Republicans and more moderate Democrats who voted for the extension of the cap-and-trade system in 2017 would likely oppose anything that would increase the cost of compliance with climate programs, such as the reforms put forth by more liberal Democrats.

Florez said a new chair should call industry’s bluff by tightening the supply of credits, which would raise prices or encourage more emissions reductions. “Is Shell Oil really leaving? Chevron Oil leaving? Nope, but we believe it, thus allow this glut of credits,” he said.

Industry groups haven’t been as vocal about their preferences; the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers and Technology Association declined to comment. Newsom’s office refused to release any letters advocating for an appointment, citing Public Records Act exemptions for correspondence to the governor and his staff.

The Western States Petroleum Association, the main trade group representing the oil industry, said it wanted someone who would listen to them. “If we were to — which we haven’t — make a recommendation for the new CARB chair, we’d suggest someone who is collaborative and interested in the expertise, innovation and science our industry can bring to discussions on climate policies and regulations,” WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd said in a statement.

Nichols herself has been mentioned as a top candidate to helm U.S. EPA in a Biden administration. Some have speculated Newsom could similarly go for a high-profile pick for CARB like former U.S. EPA administrators Lisa Jackson or Gina McCarthy, or Margo Oge, another EPA veteran.

Similar to Nichols, McCarthy had stints at U.S. EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, helmed a state environmental agency, and served under both Democratic and Republican governors. She also helped implement a greenhouse gas trading program for power plants in the Northeast, and as EPA administrator oversaw the Clean Power Plan, which would have regulated carbon dioxide from power plants on the federal level.

“I would love to see Gina McCarthy,” said former Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker, another appointee under Brown. “I can’t think of anybody else who approaches Mary.”

Newsom can put even more of his imprint on CARB in the years to come. In addition to Nichols, four other members of the board have terms expiring this year: John Balmes, John Gioia, Judy Mitchell and Alex Sherriffs. Another six members’ terms will expire at the end of 2022. Black agency employees asked in their letter for at least one of those 11 seats to be filled by a Black appointee, and at least two others to be people of color.

Florez said the next CARB chair “has to be a person of color.”

But to some state lawmakers, that doesn’t mean someone who supports environmental justice goals of more restrictions on industry. After Black CARB employees recently sent an open letter to the agency raising equity issues, Black lawmakers accused the agency of focusing too much on climate change and “costly mandates.”

They said CARB has exacerbated racial disparities by spending heavily on electric vehicle rebates and taking longer to approve a new sports stadium in a Black neighborhood than in a white one.

“As a Black man, I look at your board, I look at your past board chairs, I look at the board makeup. I do not see folks that look like me,” Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) said at a board meeting last month, which featured discussion of the letter and the creation of an office devoted to racial justice. “And that is truly disturbing in this time and age. It’s time for a change.”

Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, which is backing Guzman and Martinez, said the racial reckoning at last month’s board meeting could accelerate Newsom’s timeline in making an appointment. Nichols’ term lasts through Dec. 31, but Newsom could make an announcement at any time.

The meeting “drew a lot of attention to the board and some internal issues,” she said. “I suspect this will prompt Newsom to focus some attention now on upcoming appointments to the board.”