August 22, 2018 - From the August, 2018 issue

Mary Nichols: Transitioning California Climate Leadership to a New Administration

Earlier this month, the U.S. EPA and U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced a proposal to remove California’s right to set its own greenhouse gas emission and vehicle fuel efficiency standards. As President Richard Nixon implemented the Clean Air Act of 1970, California Governor Ronald Reagan fought to ensure the Golden State could continue pushing harder for cleaner cars that would lessen smog impacts. Sitting down with California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols, TPR inquired about the next steps in fighting the Trump administration’s actions. In response, CARB has already released a proposal to ensure that 2021-2025 model year cars meet California standards. Nichols also highlighted the upcoming Global Climate Action Summit, California transportation electrification investments, and the transition in climate leadership as Gov. Brown prepares to leave office.

Mary Nichols

"Across the board, regardless of party, Californians have long recognized that the quality of our environment is one of our state’s chief assets. That is a big part of why we’ve been able to accomplish as much as we have.” - Mary Nichols, CARB Chair

Next month is the UN’s Global Climate Action Summit, which will bring climate leaders from around the world to “take ambition to the next level.” As a longtime architect of California’s climate policies, address the significance of this summit.

Mary Nichols: Governor Brown and the state of California were asked by the United Nations to hold this conference as part of a host committee that includes Michael Bloomberg; Patricia Espinoza, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change; Anand Mahindra; and others. We intend to take advantage of the opportunity to educate and challenge all those who are coming.

Everybody is looking for examples of success stories and opportunities to ratchet up their commitments under the Paris Accord, especially as the impacts of global warming—high temperatures, the melting of Arctic icecaps, and so forth—are being seen even sooner than predicted.

The summit takes place more than year after the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Help our readers contextualize California’s decades-long leadership role on climate in light of the federal administration’s now opposing posture.

California is frequently asked to speak on behalf of the United States because of our long-standing commitment to international engagement on environmental issues. The fact that we’ve engaged all sectors of our economy in the fight against global climate change, and that we’re of very few jurisdictions in the world with a comprehensive plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, makes us a leader on this issue.

We had hoped, and still hope, to have a federal partner in this effort. We’re seeing increasing interest on the part of Congressmembers and greater acknowledgement that the problem, at least, exists, so we’re always hopeful. But it’s very late for the United States to be engaging, and that makes the fight for maintaining California’s ability to move on its own even more important.

The Trump administration is also moving to roll back federal emissions standards and eliminate the waiver that allows California to adopt its own standards. Speak to the importance of California’s regulatory waiver for greenhouse gas emissions.

The single most important source of California’s legal authority to engage important environmental issues—particularly air quality—is the Federal Clean Air Act. From the very first version of the act in 1970, California’s need and ability to regulate more aggressively than the federal government has been enshrined in law, and it has been upheld both in amendments and in the courts.

This legal ability has, over the years, encouraged us to take action when needed and made us more willing to explore and experiment—especially with technology-forcing measures. These have, in turn, helped to make California a leader in cleantech. It’s been a virtuous circle for the last 50 years, and I don’t see any reason to think that we should no longer continue working as we have.

Over the years, California hasn’t always been on the same wavelength with the national government. But there has been a clear pattern in which California stakes out a more environmentally progressive position than the federal government—and then a few years later, the federal government decides to adopt California’s standards. I believe this pattern will prevail in the area of greenhouse gas emissions as well.

What explains California’s consistent, multi-decade environmental leadership on environmental policy, despite administrations with both Republican and Democrat governors?

UC Berkeley professor David Vogel’s recent book California Greenin’ tackles this question. He points out that what makes California unique is that—even though we’ve had opposition from industry almost every time we’ve moved ahead on a new regulatory path—it’s remarkable the extent to which the business community in California has been willing to comply with these policies or even been actively involved in designing them. I think part of the explanation for this is that many of these companies’ senior executives live in California and have their kids in school here, enjoying firsthand the benefits of our beautiful beaches and mountains.

Across the board, regardless of party, Californians have long recognized that the quality of our environment is one of our state’s chief assets. That is a big part of why we’ve been able to accomplish as much as we have.

What distinguishes California’s approach to climate change from that of other North American jurisdictions tackling the same challenges?

An unusual feature of our plan is that it combines carbon pricing with measures aimed at directly reducing emissions from specific sources. We have an interactive program in which we both push for the cleanest fuels, vehicles, and manufacturing, and put a price on emissions from the largest sources. It’s a mixed program—not all regulation and not all pricing.

But the truly unique feature of California’s climate program is that revenues from our carbon reduction system are linked to obtaining additional environmental benefits, with a focus on our most disadvantaged communities. This revenue, which is now in the billions, has become a recognized source of funding for projects and programs that are otherwise difficult to fund, even in a big, prosperous state like California.

The program has lifted up the issue of community economic development and how it is linked to improving environmental quality for everybody. It has made environmental protection a topic that is not just about sources and sinks, but that engages a wide swath of the residents of California.

As a chief architect of California’s cap-and-trade system—which has become the model for Québec’s and Ontario’s programs—address Ontario’s recently announced exit from the Western Climate Initiative.

The election in Ontario of a party that rejects the idea of a cap-and-trade program is certainly a setback. Ontario has formally notified us of their intention to drop out of the Western Climate Initiative, but what they will do next is unclear. We don’t know whether they will simply defy national policy—which requires provinces to implement some form of pricing scheme for carbon—or whether they will decide to adopt a different program.

I see this development as a sad reflection of the global trend of right-wing nationalist parties taking on climate change as an issue that they want to be on the other side of—that is, the side of doing nothing or doing as little as possible. They treat climate action as elitist, bureaucratic policy, and would rather just not deal with it.

But we’re already seeing how hard it is to catch up when you’ve delayed action. We see the consequences in the form of record temperatures, larger and more intense fires, and so forth. The inevitable result is that when these effects start to be too painful to be ignored, these governments will face an even more difficult and expensive choice as to what to do about it. Unfortunately, the history of humankind is replete with examples of governments that weren’t willing to face up to a crisis before it was already upon them.


Let’s turn to electrification of transportation infrastructure, long one of your priorities. Speak to the status of California’s initiatives, investments, and ambitions for electrification.

The governor’s executive order calls upon all elements of the state to work together to achieve a fleet of 5 million zero-emission vehicles by 2030. It’s a very ambitious target, and we’re not close to it yet. However, we’re seeing encouraging signs.

Auto companies are offering a broader range of attractive vehicles. Electric utilities, both public and investor-owned, are stepping up to install public charging as well as residential and employer-based charging facilities. That will make it much more obvious to everyone that electric vehicles are actually here, available, and usable.

Many interesting public-private partnerships are happening in the heavy-duty sector. Cities including LA, Sacramento, and San Francisco are forming plans to electrify entire fleets of vehicles using their roadways. More electric buses are being built in California than any place in the country. Cities are also taking serious looks at how to electrify freight and goods movement. All these projects involve massive public and private investments. The level of activity and interest in this area is unprecedented in my experience.

Of the $2 billion that came out of the national settlement over Volkswagen’s diesel cheating episode, 40 percent is coming to California. They are partnering with Sacramento, the first of their Green Cities, on a number of different experiments and small pilots to figure out where and how charging can be deployed most efficiently. They’re also putting up money for a public education program that will include advertising for electric vehicles.

In the contest between gas versus renewables-plus-storage, what are the state’s immediate and near-term objectives?

The need to reduce emissions across the board is so drastic that nothing short of a transformation to zero emissions at every stage of the energy cycle is necessary.

Large-scale storage and capture concepts are still in the demonstration phase, and the question is one of cost and feasibility. Gas interests have put up a vigorous defense of their product by proposing ways it could be used to manufacture hydrogen, which could assist in electricity storage, and by delivering a new product in renewable natural gas. As long as natural gas is being used—such as in places that were already designed for it—we should encourage the development of renewable natural gas as much as possible.

I think we are benefitted by seeing competition, as between fuel-cell and battery electric vehicles, for example. We are encouraging both, and I don’t think we know the answer yet. At the end of the day, it’s likely that one will be more widespread in some applications and the other in others. There is a need for viable alternatives for different conditions—rural versus urban, for example, or carrying different amounts of weight. All of these things are still actively being pursued and debated in the public arena.

The California attitude has been to encourage multiple models, but to be careful when it comes to investing public money. We also have to be careful when we’re asked to waive other important objectives, like CEQA requirements for building new facilities. We have to balance other environmental and social goods with the need to develop the massive transformational technologies that are be needed to keep us under 2 degrees of warming.

Speak to CARB’s collaboration with the state Public Utilities Commission, Energy Commission, and Independent System Operator. What could be done by a new administration to better align and reinvigorate these agencies?

Every governor is faced with suggestions about reorganizing state government to make it work better and more efficiently. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration pushed hard for the four major energy agencies—ARB, CEC, CPUC, and ISO—to work together. When Jerry Brown came in, he formalized that relationship and had a member of his staff preside over meetings, and he himself attended a number of them.

 The step that people now suggest is to somehow consolidate all these agencies. It wouldn’t surprise me to see proposals made to the next governor to combine pieces of one agency or another, or to create a new entity that would take responsibility for some portion of this effort.

I’m a little bit cynical about the likelihood of real reform in institutional arrangements, but I also believe that it’s always possible to do better than we’re doing right now, and that we should be open to it.

Lastly, CARB recently established staggered terms for its appointed members, with your own term ending in 2020. Speak to the significance of this change for carrying out the agency’s growing responsibilities and central mission of setting climate policy.

In the time that I’ve been a member, the Air Resources Board has grown from five members appointed by the governor to 14 members, four of whom are appointed by the Legislature. I think that growth in size reflects a recognition of the growth of CARB’s role and importance.

AB 398 is the most recent manifestation of the Legislature’s desire to play a stronger role in the Air Resources Board. It required board members to serve in fixed terms of no more than six years in length, but left it to us to figure out implementation. Our approach was to divide the seats into three cohorts, with several new terms beginning every two years. At the end of this year, three new six-year terms will begin. In 2020, five new terms will begin, and in 2022, the remaining six terms will begin.

ARB has been a remarkably stable agency throughout the years because there are established requirements for many of the seats. Some must be members of the local air district board, while some must have specific areas of expertise, like automotive engineering or medicine. It takes a fair amount of work to find individuals who are qualified and willing to serve, and who share the overall philosophy of the appointing authority.

The problems the Board deals with are a fascinating and unique mix of policy, politics, and technical issues. The members I’ve served with over the years have been extraordinarily dedicated people who brought talent, energy, and willingness to get into these issues, and to work with stakeholder groups or investigate new ideas. It’s been a board of exceptionally good people, exemplifying the best of what the boards and commissions of this state are able to be. I don’t think having terms will stop that, but it will force a greater degree of political involvement in the membership.


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