April 24, 2020 - From the April, 2020 issue

CARB Chair Mary Nichols on Pandemic’s Confirmation of the Value of Clear Air

With “Shelter-in-Place” the law statewide in response to the Coronavirus and California’s economy all but shuttered, California’s major highways have been emptied and air quality has never been better. TPR, to better appreciate the significance of the aforementioned and to honor Earth Day 50, spoke with Mary Nichols, Chair of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), on the effects & long timer implications of the transition to remote work on air quality. Chair Nichols, with over 40 years of experience at CARB, points to the need for global collaboration and science-based decision-making as keys to navigating both the immediate COVID-19 public health crisis as well as the more slow-moving existential threat posed by climate change and air pollution. 


Mary Nichols

“I think there might be a rethinking of what we define as public transport.” —Mary Nichols

Mary, share with our readers what the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are having on both CARB’s current operations, as well as the issues and your priorities regarding air quality and climate change policy and regulation?

Mary Nichols: Well, I think we should start with how we do our work. Nearly 100 percent of my staff of over 1,200 people in Southern California and Sacramento are working from home, using technologies like Zoom or other meeting platforms to work together and continue operating. They made this transition seamlessly over the course of just a couple of days, which is incredibly impressive. We're an organization that's full of engineers and scientists, so it's probably not too surprising that people are very well-wired, computer literate, and comfortable working this way. 

The only big changes have to do with things that require people to be out in the field, like enforcement activities and gathering data that we acquire on a regular—and sometimes even real-time—basis. People have time to sit in front of their computer, look at the data, see patterns, and move on enforcement, but we don't have operatives out in the field with portable emissions monitoring equipment taking samples from roadways—which is probably just as well because there's not as much traffic. That's just an example of how things change and may change for good, we don’t know yet. 

It’s clear that teleworking will be a much bigger feature of our activities than it ever was in the past. We're about to have our first board meeting with board members in multiple locations next week. We've been testing the platform, making sure everybody's comfortable with it, and we'll see how that goes. For many years, streamed our meetings, but it's going to be very different when people are testifying from a computer as opposed to being at the meeting. 

As far as the issues of air quality and climate change are concerned—which is the substance of what we do—there's a number of things that we have already learned. One of which is that reducing the amount of driving by a substantial amount—I have not seen any accurate figures, but the traffic has drastically slowed as people have fewer places to go—we are seeing many more days of clear skies and the longest stretch of good air quality since I started looking at that data. It's impressive, and it's wonderful. But the question is, what can we do, and what's the public going to do, to keep it like this?

For context, is not April’s California & Los Angeles’ air quality the cleanest you've ever observed?

Yes, absolutely. We've had periods where we've had several days of brilliantly clear skies, and overall the levels of pollution have come down steadily over the years—even as the population and traffic has grown dramatically—but we've never had it last a month or so.

You’ve said often in advancing and advocating for California's climate policies that it’s suggesting the public must choose between the environment and the economy is a false choice. While the aforementioned may still be true, obviously closing down the economy has dramatically cleaned the air.

Yes, and that's the other side of the discussion. Fear of disease and death is not the way we would like to see people make decisions in transportation planning or what vehicles to buy—they have to find other ways to achieve the same results.

There are some pretty dramatic ideas on the table being talked about in regional agencies, local government, cities, counties, electric utilities and others about how to electrify the transportation system, which is a technological solution, but also involves changes in lifestyle and behavior as well, especially when it comes to transit. That's probably the biggest area of interest: how can we not only find ways to allow people to safely walk and bike, but is there a way to bring transit into the picture?

There's long been a thesis advanced in support of California's climate policies that more public transport and less individual cars is critically important to the success of California’s climate change goals. With public health now a public priority, will state and localities continue to invest and build out public transport as planned before the pandemic?

I think there might be a rethinking of what we define as public transport. They can be individual pods that hook up to each other that are towed by an electric rotor, vehicles with more distance between passengers, frequent cleaning, and visible attention paid to make sure that there's social distancing going on. I don't have the answers to those questions. I don't think anybody does at this point, but people are definitely giving a lot of thought to this issue.

If you were called by LA Metro’s Phil Washington to talk about the NextGen Bus study and the reliance on building-out this system of interconnected rail, what would you be sharing with them?

Electrification remains the number one issue. The buses themselves are not causing pollution. The first and most important step has to be to make sure that we're using the best technology out there to spare the air. The next issue that is whether people will be willing to board these buses after things have returned to ‘normal’. If so, how do we make sure that riding on the bus is a safe situation. 

Probably the biggest issue before that was really how to safely get people to and from the bus, and that will continue to be an issue to solve as well. But as I said, preventing overcrowding and making sure ventilation systems are working in a way that keeps the air on the bus are things that really haven’t been looked at.

And the other thing is—and this is not Phil Washington's purview—but can we and should we be encouraging more people to use broadband. This is an issue for rural areas, but as we've seen, there are also many communities and urban areas that are not hooked up to the internet. Should that be considered the part of the overall business of public mobility, as opposed to being divided up into different jurisdictions?

Regarding CARB’s agenda in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, what on the next board agenda signals your current priorities? And, are the agendas of the California PUC, Energy Commission, and Cal ISO in alignment?

We are certainly continuing to have fairly intense communications to align not only our directions, but also our training, with our sister agencies. As far as what's on our board agenda this time, two of the major issues are really discussion items as opposed to regulatory items. We do have one regulatory item agenda, and it's quite a technical amendment to the way that we certify alternative diesel fuel.

But, the major items for discussion by the board are our Mobile Source Strategy and our upcoming amendment to the Scoping Plan to lay out a plan for getting to carbon net neutrality/zero carbon in California by 2045. We're talking about how the plans are going to be developed and what they'll be like structurally. At this point, we’re not putting up graphs or actual content for review, but we’ll be will be showing a lot of thinking about what elements will go into those plans

Would be fair to say that California is doubling down on its climate change goals and compliance dates, despite the pandemic?

Yes. As I mentioned earlier when I was talking about enforcement, we have to recognize that in the case of some of the ongoing proceedings, there might be relatively minor adjustments that would need to be made in order to make sure that we fulfilled our duty and our tradition of very broad consultation with stakeholders and public input, so people have a chance to participate effectively.

With the 50 year anniversary of Earth Day being globally celebrated, contrast for our readers what's being done federally re environmental policy—mostly through the EPA—with California environmental priorities?

It's hard to keep track of the number of rollbacks; it’s stunning. They have a list and they systematically go through it to get rid of as much as they can before November on the theory that even if Trump is not reelected, it would take time to undo their actions, undoing previous regulations and programs. The overarching issue here is the complete disdain for science that is evident in every one of these proceedings. Not only the so-called secret science, but the most recent decision to strengthen the standards for fine particles and the decision on greenhouse gas emissions from GFOs. 

You can see the record and input of government and academic science just being swept aside and ignored, often without even any statement as to why it’s being ignored. That's in stark contrast to the way we do things in California, where one of the other items that we will be hearing at our next board meeting is the recent research that California is sponsoring on lithium batteries and looking at some of the previously unconsidered or unquantified benefits of cleaner air to move us in the direction of taking action at the state level to protect our air quality standards and regulations. 

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In addition to suing the federal government, California is also delivering on the strength of our own scientists and science programs to create a more robust basis for cleaning up the air, because evidence continues to mount that exposure to dirtier air makes people more vulnerable and less able to withstand the virus.

Can you talk about whether resiliency needs to be redefined in light of the pandemic? What is reliable and what isn't?

One of the things that probably will change is the extent to which human workers can be relied on to maintain some equipment that puts them at stress when they're out in the field, or when they're interacting with other humans. I suspect more automation and even more cyber security issues than we have today, going forward.

The other piece of that though is, as we look at grid modernization and grid resiliency, I think it puts a purview on the more regional or local-scale technologies that can be maintained in a more routine way, and makes them more attractive as a as a hedge against the big crisis.

Pivoting to California's collaboration with automakers regarding electrification, could address CARB’s ongoing relationship with those automobile companies in the face of push-back from the federal government?

The fact that China reversed its decision to withdraw subsidies from the electric vehicle industry is an indicator that the US government is not on board with where the rest of the world is going when it comes to electrification of the transport system. California is very much in sync with and in communication with governments around the world that are looking at these issues, and with the industry.

Overall, even where we are litigating against the Trump administration and some of our companies have chosen to side with the administration over the issue of jurisdiction, nobody questions California's right and need to continue to be aggressive about urban air quality and public health. 

We continue to talk with and keep track of what's going on with the industry company-by-company and maintaining those relationship. The Veloz organization, despite the challenges that everybody is facing, is alive and well. Some of our members even increased their contributions to the organization.

You must be pleased with the Dan Neil’s very prominently placed reporting in the Wall Street Journal, “Coronavirus Got Rid of Smog. Can Electric Cars Do So Permanently?” Is his take on promise of electric cars aligned with both CARB and Veloz’s?

Yes, of course I'd like to see more of that. I was especially excited to see that article because I’ve been a fan of Dan Neil as a car writer ever since his days at the LA column when he won his Pulitzer; he’s one of the best writers on this topic. More important, I think the message does need to continue to get out there that it's not impossible to envision a future where we would have clean air, if we're willing to make some pretty concerted shifts in support for electric vehicles. The car companies have a variety of models either actually in the show rooms or on the factory floors when the factories reopen. This is going to be a time when a change that is already underway will be accelerated because of this experiment.

Given the challenges of climate change (new-normal), the shut-down of the grid in response to fire, and now the challenges of public health, should we expect the PUC to redefine what mission and design of out utilities of the future?

The PUC’s mission and mandate from its founding is to protect consumers. In the past, that used to just mean keeping rates low, or keeping bills low.  I think one of the things that they have to face up to is the role of natural gas in electrical generation and how they’re going to look at that going forward. That's a pretty fundamental business decision that companies both in the business of gaseous fuel and the supply of electricity. And, thinking about whether being an automotive fuel provider and builder of the network is a function of an electric utility. The PUC has moved pretty carefully. The amounts of money are huge, but the percentages of what the utilities ask for are actually not that high. They may have to think about being more encouraging of a bigger role for the utilities. We might see that as something apart of being consumer friendly as well. 

In a VX/TPR interview with  Dr. Thomas Becker of BMW Group this winter, he said: ‘we see a landscape where cities are becoming the drivers of change with the framework conditions set not by national governments, but by local government, which impacts the choices of customers much more heavily than ever before.’ Do you agree?

Yes, absolutely. CARB is an agency that sets standards statewide, but we don't deal directly with decisions about how the transportation system works except for advocating for and allocating funds that come to the state from the federal government for transportation—which unfortunately have been decreasing over the years because we continue to depend on the gas tax.

Flipping that model around puts even more responsibility at the local level for shaping the transportation system. The things that large and small cities are doing to attract and maintain innovative companies that rely on zero emission vehicles, or help contribute to better opportunities for people to live near where they work are happening every day; the leadership is really coming from the city.

You've indicated that you're likely to leave CARB early in 2021. Without diminishing the pandemic’s early impact on cleaning our air, what might be your and CARB’s lasting legacy when we all look back on your 40 years of service?

I think it's very risky for anyone in elected politics to try to decide what their legacy should be. What I want to say is that CARB—in the 40 years I’ve been associated with it—has become a much stronger, more sophisticated and more effective agency than it was, and is playing a role in helping to uphold the idea that the science and scientific knowledge should be the basis for public policy. Public policy has a key role to play in protecting the health and the economy of our country. So, the extent of my time there as helped to build that reputation based on the real actions that we've been able to take, I think that is the legacy.

How unusual, regarding legacy, has it been to serve under multiple administrations of different parties in pursuit of CARB’s regulatory mission?

I don't know what to say other than the fact that I think that in California at least there's a really strong thread of continuity among our elected officials—especially governors—about the importance of keeping, achieving and maintaining clean air in California as one of those values that everyone subscribes to.

Lastly, when currently reading pandemic-related reporting on energy policy and climate change, what is not being shared or is inaccurately being shared? What information should be prioritized?

What irritates me the most when I read the paper are the half-baked analyses that say, now that the pandemic is over, we’ve got climate change and we're moving on. It's true that as crises go, climate change has not killed as many people with a clear and direct connection as COVID-19, but I hate to think of this as a competition for a number of reasons. 

One of which is that solutions for one are not unrelated to solutions for the other. For example, international cooperation is essential to achieve worldwide, lasting results in climate change. We can do a lot in California to be a model, be good citizens, and to find ways to make reductions in our impact and in ways that help our economy, but we know that it would be meaningless if others didn't pick up some of these ideas and adapt them in their own ways. One way or another, it's going to take an effort that includes saving rainforests in Amazonia as well as driving fuel-less cars in California. Individuals, governments, and businesses have to be able to talk to each other and find ways to work together for the common good. 

That has been shown to be one of the major concerns about future pandemics, and the President is trying to use this as a way to blame it all on China. Perhaps a more productive way of doing it would be working with the World Health Organization, figuring out how to make them more effective, and trying to build a stronger, more interconnected system rather than tearing down the somewhat less strong institutions that we have.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.