She’s fighting Trump on climate change — and bringing cookies

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, August 20, 2018

Mary Nichols, California’s “queen of green,” is her state’s standard-bearer in the legal fight over the Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks.

A tough negotiator known for bringing homemade cookies to tense meetings, the California Air Resources Board chairwoman is still drawing up battle plans to counter President Trump’s push to weaken automobile pollution rules and strip her state’s ability to set its own Clean Air Act standards.

“I wish I could tell you I had a road map to success here. I don’t know how it’s going to play out,” Nichols said in a telephone interview from her home in Los Angeles yesterday. “I hope we will be able to get our federal counterparts to sit down at the technical level, as well as the industry, and come up with an alternative to the [notice of proposed rulemaking] that the feds released in August.”

Nichols, 73, plans to stay on the front lines through 2020 as leader of California’s air agency, where she’s emerged as one of the most dynamic and consequential regulators in the country.

After earning a law degree from Yale, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) tapped Nichols in 1975 to serve on CARB. Four years later, she was leading the council.

She went on to found the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Los Angeles office in 1989 before going to work in the Clinton administration as the assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, where she ran a cap-and-trade program to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions and curb acid rain.

In 2007, Nichols was once again asked to lead the council, but this time by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. That year, Nichols moved to avoid an appearance of conflict of interest after it was revealed she had stock holdings in major oil and coal companies and utilities. Nichols put her oil stocks in a trust (Greenwire, Aug. 20, 2007).

Two years ago, Nichols’ husband of 46 years, John Daum — whose longtime work representing Exxon Mobil Corp. would earn them the title of the “odd couple” in media reports — passed away.

Nichols spoke with E&E News about California’s legal strategy, growing up in New York, and the power of freshly baked cookies.

Who dubbed you the “queen of green”?

[Laughs.] Dan Rather gave me that name in a profile he did when he was doing a news magazine program. I was one of his early profile subjects, and he had his crews following me around and I did various things, including a day I spent at the forestry school at Yale.

What do you hope to accomplish with the fuel efficiency standards?

An alternative to the [federal notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM] that gives companies some relief, particularly in light of the changes in their market and the transformation the industry is going through, but at the same time keeps them moving forward toward meeting our goals both for fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions.

We’re doing the best we can to marshal all the legal and political and technical tools we have to make that happen.

Are you discussing your legal strategies around the fuel efficiency standards?

No, although it is true that even with our actions we are able to take that directly relate to fuels and vehicles, we’re also looking at other ways of reducing the total amount of driving that’s going on for a variety of reasons.

At our board meeting in September, we’re looking at a rule that would require transit agencies as they turn over their fleets to purchase a percentage of their buses as zero-emission buses, so battery-electric or fuel cells.

You met with acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in July. Were you surprised when EPA moved to roll back the clean car standards?

Not really. He’s lived up to his reputation as someone who knows his way around the agency, is committed to process — which is a big change from his predecessor — as someone who’s interested in making progress on the environmental front, but also somebody who’s deeply loyal to the administration and won’t do anything to derail a process that was almost finished by the time he got there that led to this NPRM.

I didn’t get the sense he was deeply wedded to the details that were in the NPRM. I think it was well along in the Office of Management and Budget process at that point.

I understand — not from anything he’s said to me directly, but other sources — that he made an effort to improve the NPRM by attempting to make some of the more extreme arguments at least be modified. He wasn’t successful in that.

Do you have plans to meet with him again?

Not at the moment, but it’s quite likely we’ll have an opportunity to talk again in the next few weeks.

You’ve been known to bring homemade cookies to tense meetings.

[Laughs] Hopefully, it illustrates that I believe in government; we have a tendency to take ourselves very seriously, and the work we do is serious. But if people can’t find a way to relate to each other on a more human level, then it’s much more difficult to actually arrive at practical solutions that can be communicated to real people.

Have you seen the leaked draft of EPA’s Clean Power Plan replacement? Any thoughts?

The Clean Power Plan is perhaps in even more trouble than the vehicle standards, in the sense that they’re trying to come up with something new. And so far, it doesn’t look like much. We’ll be commenting.

Would the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court change your legal strategy?

At this point, I wouldn’t say we have to come up with a strategy that includes never having a case go to the Supreme Court because of the potential that Kavanaugh could be sitting there. He’s certainly not somebody we would be expecting to be an advocate for us, but in spite of that fact, people change when they move from the Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court, get involved in a generally broader set of considerations. He is a former clerk for Justice [Anthony] Kennedy who was a very important vote in decisions.

It has not caused us to change our position.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Ithaca, N.Y. My father was a professor of electrical engineering at Cornell. My mother had a doctorate in French literature and taught in the local schools. Both of my parents were also local elected officials, so I grew up in a political family. My dad was the mayor of Ithaca for three terms. After he stepped down as mayor, he served on the school board.

Would you ever go back to work at EPA?

I don’t think it would be something that would ever be in the cards. All the jobs, including the one I have now, need to be turned over to future generations.

I’m looking forward to the day that happens; I’m just not in a big rush right now.

And you’re expecting to lead CARB through 2020?

I’ve had a direct conversation with [Democratic Lt. Gov.] Gavin Newsom, who’s likely the next governor of California, in which he indicated he would like for me to stay. I told him that I would be honored to work through a transition. But we didn’t set a deadline.

Is there a reason you wanted to stay?

I feel like I’m in the middle of a couple of really big things — certainly, the future of our auto standards is fundamental to California’s entire approach to air quality and climate change and our ability to set standards for new motor vehicles, which then in turn enables us to work more effectively on fuels.

I’m having a wonderful time.