Mary Nichols has led California's resistance to President Donald Trump's climate policies. Now she may wind up leading the federal government's fight on climate and other environmental issues.
The chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board is widely reported to be on President-elect Joe Biden's short list of candidates for Environmental Protection Agency administrator — a vivid example of the sea change coming to Washington and the clout that California will have in shaping the new administration's views on a wide range of critical matters.
That will surely include Biden's environmental agenda. Whether Nichols gets the EPA job or not, experts say the Biden administration is likely to side with California officials on a host of environmental controversies — starting with the state's blueprint for limiting the amount of carbon spewed by cars and trucks. The Trump administration moved to strip California of its authority to regulate tailpipe emissions.
"(CaIifornia) will be able to achieve more without the resistance the federal government has been able to put in place the last four years," said Julia Stein, an environmental-law expert at UCLA.
Already there are signs of environmental policy tilting toward California. On Monday, General Motors Corp. CEO Mary Barra pulled GM out of a lawsuit against California over the tailpipe rules. "We believe the ambitious electrification goals of the President-elect, California, and General Motors are aligned, to address climate change by drastically reducing automobile emissions," she said.
Also Monday, Biden chose former Secretary of State John Kerry as a special envoy on climate policy, offering further evidence of the path ahead. In July, Kerry spoke of the need for auto manufacturers to produce plans "for a faster transition out of internal combustion into electric."
Still, changes won't occur overnight. It will take months if not longer for the new administration to substitute its own environmental regulations for Trump's rules on air, water, land stewardship and other issues. Meanwhile, groups aligned with the Trump administration plan on continuing their fight.
"It can't turn on a dime," said Richard Frank, who runs UC Davis' California Environmental Law and Policy Center. "These processes have to be followed."
Nichols, who is retiring next month as head of the air board, said she would take the EPA job if offered — but insisted she doesn't know whether Biden's transition team is actively vetting her. "Honestly, I don't know what's going on with the process," she said.
In any event, her fellow California regulators say a partnership with Washington is long overdue, especially when it comes to issues like combating climate change.