ARB Chair Mary Nichols explains state's role in federal climate policy discussions

As California leads the way for the United States in creating an emissions reduction plan, what aspects of the California plan can be applied on the national level? During today's OnPoint, newly appointed chair of the California Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols, discusses why she believes it is important for the federal government to engage California on climate policy issues. Nichols explains a recent announcement that California will be making an even more aggressive commitment to reducing emissions. She also discusses what her primary goals are for her new position as chair of the ARB.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board. Mary, thanks for coming on the show.

Mary Nichols: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: You're in D.C. talking to some key lawmakers who are involved in the climate discussions on the Hill. Why do you feel it's so important for California to be involved when it comes to federal policy discussions on climate?

Mary Nichols: Well, California has already set a cap on emissions, a statewide cap on greenhouse gas emissions because we recognize the problem and our governor has said the time for action is now and so we're moving forward. We are very concerned that we have a federal program which we can link up to and that will not only work with us, but not undercut us. And so there's a number of issues about the federal legislation that are of great concern to us, starting with making sure that there is a cap and that it's strong enough so that a weak cap doesn't undermine our efforts to really try to make some progress on what is a very big environmental problem for us as Californians, as well as for the world.

Monica Trauzzi: What's the main message you're trying to relay to lawmakers as you have discussions with them? What are some of the lessons learned that you're sort of trying to let them know about?

Mary Nichols: Well, I think the first thing is that having passed a cap, despite great opposition, and really although there were high-tech companies, green-tech companies who supported the legislation, by and large our business community was not in favor of moving forward on any kind of climate legislation when we did this. They have now not only rallied around, but they are actively participating and really contributing in some very important ways to the design of the program and bringing forward good ideas about how to make it work as efficiently as possible. So it's exactly what we had hoped for. Global climate is not just an environmental issue. Of course it is an environmental disaster, but it also has really profound effects human life as we know it, which means on every sector of the economy. And so taking on this problem also means that there are opportunities as well as challenges for every sector of the economy. And so one of our most important messages is this has to involve everyone and we really do have to look at every sector. And in some cases specialized programs will have to be designed for particular types of industries or activities. Not every ton of carbon can be traded for every other ton. But there does need to be a cap and then within that cap you have to allow for as much flexibility as possible.

Monica Trauzzi: And if a federal policy is not created soon does it sort of make all of California's efforts an exercise in futility?

Mary Nichols: Well, actually we have the responsibility at the Air Resources Board to design a program to get to the first stage, which is to get to 1990 levels by 2020. And that's about a 25 percent reduction in carbon emissions as we calculate it. And actually, we are very optimistic that we could do this for California on our own and not do it in a way that would cause undue hardship for our consumers, for our industry. But we want to go further because climate stabilization is going to require much more dramatic cuts, something like 80 percent perhaps by 2050 and real breakthrough technologies. And to get to that point we really need to have everybody participating. You can't have an effective market without having the rest of the country. And also, frankly, it would be embarrassing. I mean our governor goes around the world and is greeted as an international celebrity, which is wonderful, and we're invited to participate in forums in Europe and in Asia and so forth, but we want to be there as part of the United States, not just as a separate entity.

Monica Trauzzi: In the Senate we're hearing that there may actually even be enough votes, 60 votes, for a climate bill. What kind of questions are you hearing from lawmakers as you talk to them?

Mary Nichols: I think the main questions have to do with how a United States wide cap-and-trade program will affect different regions of the country. And everyone is concerned; of course every member has to be concerned about whether this will have a positive or negative effect on their own state. And so you really have to be able to do some analysis about the relative efficiency, the types of fuels, the types of manufacturing versus other kinds of industries, in order to know whether a particular design is going to benefit one or hurt another. And of course what we're hoping for is something that will be as equitable as possible. I mean that would be the goal. And our intention is to try to provide, with the help of all the great support we've had from people in our universities and other high-tech entities out there, some quick analysis of some of the impacts of these various ideas that people are floating.

Monica Trauzzi: You mentioned Governor Schwarzenegger and his influence before. And he recently spoke to the U.N. There was climate week. The U.N. and the State Department both held international -- high-level international meetings and he addressed the U.N. Is he unofficially becoming the U.S. representative on the climate issue?

Mary Nichols: You know, I think Governor Schwarzenegger is so passionate about this issue and believes so strongly in the approach that we've taken in California as being the right way to go, that he just feels compelled wherever he goes to make the case on the need for action and the need to use markets as well as regulations to get us to the goal. He is a citizen of the world of course, not only because of his movie star background, but also because he wasn't born in the United States and because he's traveled so much. And he sees the common interests of people around the world in getting involved in something like this and he sees the opportunities for countries around the world to participate in something that at the end of the day is going to make us all stronger and all more prosperous. And if we don't do it right could really have devastating effects on the future. So it's the kind of challenge that I think is just irresistible.

Monica Trauzzi: What's your take on the international meetings that we saw recently? Did they build up enough momentum?

Mary Nichols: I think the fact that the president did invite the major emitting countries to come to Washington, even though there weren't clear agreements coming out of it and I know many people were disappointed, including myself, that that wasn't something more specific on the table that people could agree to. Just the fact of having the United States now openly saying we need to be part of the debate and we need to do it with other countries, not just on our own, was seen as really an important step forward and hopefully a sign that if Congress can pass a good, strong bill that the president would sign it.

Monica Trauzzi: Heading up the Air Resources Board is a relatively new position for you. You've been there for about three months now. And the previous chair of the Air Resources Board was fired by the governor. What are the top things on your to-do list that you want to do at the Air Resources Board? What changes are you hoping to make?

Mary Nichols: I think the most important thing about my being at the Air Resources Board actually is that I'm not new at the Air Resources Board. I had this job 30 years ago when Jerry Brown was our governor and was actually first starting to talk about greenhouse gas emissions and how they might have an impact on our programs to deal with the public health impacts of air pollution. My goal is to engage as publicly and as broadly as possible with all sectors in our society and to develop a program which will be seen as really being broad based and fair and progressive, in the best sense of the word, and demonstrating the commitment to environmental progress and to promoting clean technology at the same time. This is like a fabulous opportunity for somebody who's been working in the environmental field all my life, to be working in California at a point when there are so many people who want to get involved. But we can't just sit in our bureaucratic offices and do our calculations based on our technical expertise. This is not something that can be designed in-house. It's really got to involve all of the best ideas that are out there. And so the fun part is being involved in bringing people in and testing some of these ideas, getting different groups together, figuring out how to mix and match various proposals to come up with a plan that's going to engage local communities, individual consumers, every different economic group, as well as the government. And my colleagues in state government, you know the water agencies, the people who work with the landfills, I mean they're all involved in coming up with proposals and ideas. And there's going to have to be a lot of voluntary action early on so that people could really start to build up the confidence that they can do these programs. So those are my priorities and I think that it is definitely the issue of our time, but it's one in which we have tremendous support from the public.

Monica Trauzzi: The Air Resources Board is going to be voting on tripling early measures for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Why are you considering making an even more aggressive commitment? Your goal here is to sort of speed up the process. Do you feel like there is added pressure for California to get the ball rolling on this?

Mary Nichols: The way that our law works, A.B. 32, requires that we develop a scoping plan that tells us how we're going to get to the ultimate goal. But it also required that the Air Board come up with some early action measures as well as voluntary programs. And the early action measures were supposed to be regulations that could actually be in effect and starting to achieve reductions by 2010, which is really just right around the corner. So it was a challenge to the board that I chair, as a regulatory agency, to look out across the field and see what we do to come up with measures that would contribute to getting the total tons that we need to reduce? And I think it was important, it is important for us to show skeptics, including some in the legislature who voted for this bill, that this isn't just some new fancy economic program that they're not so sure of how it's going to work, that there are actually traditional regulatory measures that we can take that will get real tons that we can in effect put in the bank and use to show that we're going to get to the goal.

Monica Trauzzi: Is the governor's office on the same page when it comes to an accelerated pace?

Mary Nichols: Yes.

Monica Trauzzi: There have been some reports that they may try to slow down the process.

Mary Nichols: No, actually it's just the opposite. The reason why there was a change in the chair was that actually the governor's office was worried that they weren't seeing the evidence of progress on this program, which has been the governor's signature program. And it's certainly his legacy and he needed to have somebody there that he knew shared his passion for moving.

Monica Trauzzi: Final question. We're almost out of time. Something that has come up recently, after the firing of the previous Air Resources Board chair, is whether or not Air Resources Board members should have fixed terms. Should they?

Mary Nichols: Well, here again I suppose my experience is guiding my views on this topic. But the Air Resources Board has a reputation which I am proud to say is really a world reputation as being a very competent and very independent regulatory body. It's never had fixed terms for its members and it's survived some real political ups and downs, not just changes in party, but times of recession in the state and so forth. And yet there's always been a strong support on the part of the public for cleaning up the air in California. And I think the way that we've done it is by first of all having a board that's made up of a bunch of people with different kinds of expertise, from different parts of the state, but they're all there at the pleasure of the governor. And I compare that with some other boards where there are fixed terms, which may seem more lofty or more removed from the political fray, but which don't actually see the results that this board has been able to achieve. When the fact is that we have cleaned up the air in California at historic levels and cleaned up automobiles, cut the emissions by 90 percent twice in two decades. And this has happened with a politically appointed board because it was what the public wanted to see. So I personally don't feel the need for a fixed term.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. We will end it on that note. Thanks for coming on the show.

Mary Nichols: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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