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Who Is Mary Nichols, Leading Contender To Head EPA Under Biden

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: The incoming Biden administration plans to move aggressively on climate change, and that will mean taking a page and personnel from California. The state has been a leader in establishing ambitious climate policies. And one of its top officials, Mary Nichols, is in line to head the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. And as NPR's Lauren Sommer reports, that's a big change in tone.

SOMMER: California's environmental feud with the Trump administration has gotten a lot of attention, but the state's most important climate battle, you could argue, hasn't been with Washington. It's been with Detroit.

JOHN VIERA: So I would say the attitude from the automakers - we were, I guess, concerned would be a good word.

SOMMER: John Viera worked at Ford for 35 years and is now an executive in residence at the University of Michigan Business School. For more than a decade, it was automakers on one side of the table, Mary Nichols on the other. They were negotiating California's tough car standards that limit carbon emissions and put electric vehicles on the road.

VIERA: They were clear. They came out and said, hey, you know, we're pushing the envelope for you guys because if we don't put this mandate out, we don't think you're going to be putting your research dollars into electric vehicles.

SOMMER: California can set its own pollution standards under the Clean Air Act, but the automakers have long fought it. In 2008, Nichols was trying to change that.

VIERA: I knew that she was willing to listen. It was very tough. I'm not saying that she folded. She was very tough on the standards and very aggressive, but she was willing to listen.

SOMMER: The result was the Obama administration's fuel economy standards, which borrowed directly from California. But when Trump came into office, he rolled them back. You might think that automakers would rejoice, but five of them stuck with California, agreeing to tougher standards than Trump was proposing. Nichols still doesn't seem surprised.

MARY NICHOLS: I never lost my faith, and I never have lost my faith that eventually people will see the light, and I think that's what happened.

SOMMER: Nichols is wrapping up 13 years as head of California's Air Resources Board, where she spearheaded a lot of climate firsts, like the first cap on carbon emissions from power plants and industry. That could serve as a model for the Biden administration.

NICHOLS: California showed how it could be done, but then it became the norm everywhere. And that has been the pattern.

ROLAND HWANG: It's been California, California, California leading the way. If California goes, so goes the nation.

NICHOLS: Roland Hwang works on climate policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says it's clear where car policy is headed under the Biden administration. Just this past week, GM announced it's dropping its opposition to California's car policy.

HWANG: The future of the automobile industry - the future of the truck industry is zero, and that means electric vehicles. And that also means hydrogen fuel cells.

SOMMER: But to cut carbon emissions as fast as scientists say is needed, the federal government will have to move even faster than California. Nichols says the first step is doing damage control after the Trump administration.

NICHOLS: I think there's also a lot of hard work that needs to be done to restore EPA as the science-based health agency that it was designed to be.

SOMMER: If she's picked, that's work Nichols says she's ready to do. Lauren Sommer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 28, 2020 at 10:00 PM MST
In an earlier headline for this segment, the name of the chair of the California Air Resources Board was misspelled. She is Mary Nichols, not Nicholes.
Lauren Sommer
Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.
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