As head of the California Air Resources Board, 73-year-old Mary Nichols is arguably the state’s most powerful weapon in its war with President Donald Trump over the its plan to combat climate change and have automakers toe the California line.

Share story

Mary Nichols was in classic blunt mode earlier this month, calling the latest Trump administration’s challenge to Obama-era auto-emission targets “a piece of crap” and dismissing as “nonsense” the industry claims that fighting pollution costs too much.

“Give me a break,” Nichols said before a California Air Resources Board symposium in the Los Angeles suburb of Riverside. She picked on General Motors’ CEO to dismiss the argument that tough clean-air rules render cars unaffordable. “As long as Mary Barra makes more than ten times what I do in a year, I’m really not interested in what she has to say about poor people.” (For the record, Barra’s compensation last year was 132 times the $166,710 Nichols earned; Barra declined to comment.)

As the head of the board, the 73-year-old Nichols is arguably California’s most powerful weapon in its war with President Donald Trump over the state’s plan to combat climate change and have automakers toe the California line.

Mary Nichols, of California Air Resources Board

Age: 73

Career: At 27, argued first lawsuit that forced EPA to carry out the Clean Air Act. Appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to the Air Resources Board in 1975. Left board in the 1980s, returned as chair in 2007 at the request of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Source: Bloomberg News

If they did their research, the administration officials who met with her May 23 wouldn’t have been fooled by her unfailingly polite demeanor. A favorite trick to break the ice has been to show up with a Tupperware container of chocolate-chip cookies.

Under Nichols, the air-resources board “is a beast of an agency,” said Cara Horowitz, a University of California at Los Angeles law professor. “The fact that they could create these California emission regulations from whole cloth, and lobby to have them propagated nationwide, is a testimony to her judgment and power as a leader.”

Of course, Nichols’ skills and plain-spoken style earn her accolades from environmentalists. “It’s hard to imagine anybody being better at what she does,” said Roland Hwang, managing director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate & Clean Energy Program.

What’s interesting is that she has more than a few fans in the auto industry. “When we walk out of a meeting with Mary, we know where we stand,” said Bill Craven, senior manager of U.S. regulatory affairs for Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz unit. “We need certainty, and Mary Nichols gives us that.’’

Some executives are eager to make a deal with California before Gov. Jerry Brown leaves office in January, when Nichols is also scheduled to leave, because of concerns their successors may lack their clout and willingness to compromise.

If the next governor doesn’t keep Nichols at the board, then “somebody with the same leadership skills to really weigh the environment and the economy” is needed, said Cathy Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association. “We need both.”

Nichols was in Washington, D.C., to discuss an upcoming proposal from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Environmental Protection Agency to significantly alter federal auto-efficiency targets.

A draft provided by the staff of Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, recommended freezing fuel economy at a 37-miles-per-gallon fleet average from 2020 through 2026. That would be down from the roughly 50-miles-per-gallon end goal for that span, which was agreed to when Barack Obama was president.

The draft also laid out legal arguments for attacking California’s authority under the 48-year-old U.S. Clean Air Act to set its own tailpipe standards for greenhouse gas emissions, which are followed by 12 other states.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt defended the administration’s position in a recent Bloomberg Television interview, saying California shouldn’t be allowed to “dictate” air quality goals for the rest of the country. California, 16 other states and the District of Columbia responded with a lawsuit May 2 seeking to block Pruitt’s proposed changes.

What’s still an unknown, Nichols said, is “the extent to which the companies are able or willing to have a candid conversation with California about what they need before reaching an agreement with the federal administration.”

Her goal, she said, is to continue to link California’s clean-air rules with D.C.’s as the state has done since 2009. But “if the federal government is doing something that is illegitimate or does not make sense, we will not go along with it.’’

In 1972, Nichols argued the first lawsuit filed to force the EPA to carry out the Clean Air Act. She was 27 and a lawyer with the Center for Law in the Public Interest in Los Angeles.

In those days, a dense brown smog shrouded the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of her L.A. home, burning lungs and forcing school kids to stay indoors during frequent “ozone alert’’ days.

Brown, in the first of his four terms as governor, named Nichols to the California Air Resources Board in 1975. The U.S. mandated catalytic converters that year. It was one of the pollution-control measures that, combined with regulations the state issued, proved so successful the state hasn’t had an ozone alert in 15 years, according to Richard Corey, the board’s executive officer.

Progress that people could actually see created a deep reservoir of support when California started regulating carbon dioxide to fight climate change in 2006.

Nichols left the board in 1983 for high-profile jobs, including running former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 1986 and writing clean-air rules for Bill Clinton’s EPA in 1993. She returned as chairman of the air-resources board in 2007 at the request of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Since then, she’s promoted low-carbon fuels, renewable electricity, energy-efficient buildings and battery-powered school buses and cargo-handling equipment. She’s studying how to manage forests and farmland so they’ll capture and hold more carbon.

There’s still a long road ahead; the San Gabriel foothills, after all, are often surrounded by a pinkish haze. To comply with pollution targets the U.S. has mandated for 2031 — which Pruitt hasn’t challenged — nitrogen oxide emissions in the L.A. basin will have to drop by 80 percent.

To get there, and simultaneously reach its CO2 reduction goals, the state has no choice but to ramp up sales of zero-emission vehicles, including battery-powered cars, plug-ins and fuel cells, said Stanley Young, a board spokesman.

California has already ordered an increase for zero-emission vehicles to go from 4.7 percent of total car and light-truck sales last year to about 8 percent by 2025. The state is considering additional increases by 2030.

In meetings with federal officials last Wednesday, Nichols was playing both offense and defense. The Trump administration “is certainly not going to stop climate change,” she said. “But there’s also not a whole lot they’re going to do to make it worse — because we can prevent them from doing most of it.”