Inside California's fight against pollution

Inside California's fight against pollution
© Courtesy of the California Air Resources Board

Mary Nichols, the woman who for more than 15 years has led the fight to improve California’s poor air quality, says she’s not a fan of a nickname she’s acquired: Queen of Green.

“I actually hate the title,” Nichols told The Hill during a recent phone interview.

“We live in what is intended to be a representative democracy, so queens are not our thing.”

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But Nichols, who has twice headed the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and more recently has led the state in its battle against the Trump administration’s rollback of key car emissions regulations, has nevertheless become a reigning environmental figure.

“I do this work because I believe in it. And over the years, I’ve become even more committed than I was when I first started to the notion that air pollution is an affront to civilization,” she said.

While Nichols’s name might have long found recognition in the Golden State, it has increased in national prominence in the past two years in conjunction with California’s forceful opposition to a Trump administration decision last summer to weaken auto emissions standards originally agreed to under former President Obama. 

Nichols, along with other California leaders including former Gov. Jerry Brown (D), current Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin Christopher NewsomPG&E fails to get governor's approval on restructuring proposal Sanders revokes congressional endorsement for Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur Sanders endorses Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur for Katie Hill's former House seat MORE (D) and state Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraSecond federal judge blocks Trump from using military funds for border wall California recovers M from auto parts makers' in bid rigging settlement Adam Schiff's star rises with impeachment hearings MORE (D), have warned the rule change will worsen California’s already poor air quality. And they’re fighting back in court.

“What is being proposed here is fundamentally dismantling a system that has actually been working quite well for all parties,” Nichols said. “It’s all about health and the environment — it’s not about fighting for the sake of a political fight.”

The original emissions plan for cars and light trucks first implemented by the Obama administration in 2012 aimed to curb greenhouse gases by pushing the entire auto industry toward creating greener cars. 

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The plan was developed after extensive talks with automakers and California, which maintains it has the right to set its own air pollution standards under the Clean Air Act. Fourteen other states have opted to adopt California’s standards. 

The Trump administration, however, has argued the rule is too obtrusive to the auto industry and plays a too-heavy government hand. Their proposed alternative rule significantly weakens the emissions standard.

Since the administration announced it was revisiting the rule, Nichols has been an integral figure in the often-heated talks between California and President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  It’s a role for which some would say she’s well trained as a former air pollution lawyer for the town of Riverside and former assistant administrator of air and radiation at the EPA under the Clinton administration.

But even she says she was not aware of the administration’s plan to halt all conversations with California over the rule, which it announced suddenly in February.

“We knew we weren’t getting anywhere with discussions, but to say discussions were cut off implies that they were happening, but they weren’t happening,” Nichols said of CARB’s attempts to negotiate with the EPA.

“That was fake news,” she said.

Nichols described the communication breakdown as someone who often deals with science would: “a matter of friction” due to “entropy.”

“It rapidly became clear that the position of the federal government was, ‘We are willing to talk to you, although we don’t think you have any specific standing, and we don’t think you should, but if you have any alternative proposals you want to bring forward that we might like, we could consider not taking away your position to not adopt the standards,’ ” she said of her interactions with EPA leadership.

“I’ve done a lot of negotiations in my lifetime, working on air quality issues at some federal level since the 1970s, and I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Newly confirmed EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, testifying in front of Congress in early April, blamed the breakdown in talks on California’s unwillingness to compromise.

“We’re always open to hearing from California on this. But to be frank, they did not come back with a credible offer last fall,” Wheeler said. “There is a lot of politics going on in California over this issue.”

Nichols calls the characterization “totally inaccurate.”

“It indicates either they didn’t understand what we were proposing or chose not to understand,” she said.

She said the last communication between CARB and the EPA was a proposal her agency sent to make the emissions program simpler for auto companies to comply with. She said her office never got a response. 

And then, soon after, came the announcement that the talks were over.

“We felt we had bent over backwards to show how we were willing to accommodate our rules for any concerns industry had. The government position was ideology — not just make a rule more onerous, but gut the rule and prevent California from implementing their own standards,” Nichols said.

She said CARB has since had no communications with the EPA over the rule, which the Trump administration maintains will offer nearly identical emissions reductions targets.

Asked who she thought would benefit the most from the Trump rule change, which she has argued automakers are largely opposed to, Nichols points to the fossil fuel industry.

“It has been said, and I believe it’s true, that the only entities who clearly benefit are the people who produce gasoline. The oil and gas industry as a whole, which wants to keep a hold on its market and its share of the transportation market for as long as possible,” she said.

Trump has long championed the U.S. fossil fuel industry, calling for the increased production of coal and natural gas as part of his overall energy independence agenda. Wheeler also has deep ties to the energy industry, having previously worked as a lobbyist for coal clients at the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels.

California hasn’t taken the plan sitting down. Earlier this month, the state sued the administration for failing to provide internal documents used to develop the emissions plan. The next step would be a formal lawsuit challenging the rule.

“The state of California has already been branded the anti-Trump administration. Our governor is the anti-Trump on a whole range of issues from immigration to high speed rail to health care,” Nichols said, offering a strong defense of the state’s vision.

“I know that California is looked to as the de facto representative of the United States when it comes to demonstrating that we can grow our economy, protect the health of our people and slash emissions of the gases that are poisoning the atmosphere,” Nichols said. “So we will continue on that path.”