Thursday, Aug. 30, 2007 – Land Line Magazine interviewed Mary Nichols this week and heard firsthand what the leader of the world’s most powerful state agency has to say about truck emissions and the governator.
Nichols was appointed in July by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to serve in the full-time paid post of chairman of the California Air Resources Board.
She had previously served as CARB chairman from 1979 to 1983. Her recent appointment came during a tumultuous summer for the agency that has included Schwarzenegger firing previous Chairman Robert Sawyer and defending himself against accusations that his office is interfering with CARB decisions.
Nichols’ present term already has been marked by the agency’s aggressive move to issue new regulations for off-road construction diesel engines and a renewed commitment to California Assembly Bill 32 and its mission of limiting greenhouse gas emissions from trucks, four-wheelers and the manufacturing industry.
Here’s what Nichols had to tell us.
LL: Chairman Nichols, welcome, and thanks for talking with Land Line today. You’ve obviously had a very active first two months on the job, beginning with July’s enactment of tougher off-road diesel emission standards. Can you talk a little bit about how that’s gone?
Nichols: “It’s been an exciting time to be coming back to the (California) Air Resources Board, but it feels like coming home. I did work here before, back in the late ’70s and early ’80s under Gov. Jerry Brown, and it was a very exciting time, because at that point, air pollution was really just emerging as an issue. California was certainly a place that had tremendous popular support for cleaning up the air and we had an opportunity to really pioneer some of the technologies that are now taken for granted today.
“I was on the board during the time when we were haggling with manufacturers of lead over whether lead was safe to put in gasoline and when we were arguing with auto manufacturers about whether there would be enough platinum in the world for catalysts, and if we were to require catalytic converters on automobiles, and whether the catalysts would cause fires or blow up.
“It’s been very gratifying over these last years to see how some of the decisions we made in those early days have played out in the real world. In California, we now have a population that is about three times what it was, vehicle miles traveled is growing faster than the population, yet the air quality today is actually better than what it was when I was first working on these issues.
“To come back to the Air Resources Board after all these years, and now begin dealing with some of the new issues that are on our plate, and especially with global warming, is really an honor and a pleasure.”
LL: Obviously, a lot has changed in the 25 years since you last served. How is the Air Resources Board different now compared to when you left and how are emissions different?
Nichols: “In many respects it’s not all that different because many of the women and men who came to the Air Resources Board in the ’70s when I did are still here, and are now in very senior positions running the agency.
“So, in that sense, its been interesting to see how people have been able to have really satisfying careers in state government – that’s not true in every corner of government work but here I think people have been able to really not only have a good quality of life but also to accomplish things they feel proud of. That makes it a very satisfying place to work.
“What has changed is that the Air Resources Board is much bigger, the regulatory programs that it operates are much more widespread, touching on everything from consumer products to ports, and so we’ve had to develop expertise in almost every area of technology and every area of the economy that has any impact on air quality.
“Now, with the passage of AB32 setting a mandatory legal target that the state has to reach 1990 emissions levels of carbon dioxide and other major greenhouse gases by 2020, we have a mandate to reach out into areas we never really worked in before.
“So, we don’t intend to try to replicate the work that’s being done by other people. We have to develop the relationships, reach out and be able to incorporate some of the best thinking that’s out there in the state and in the world about how we can make very rapid and substantial cuts in our use of carbon.”
LL: You mentioned AB32, and that bill’s powers, specifically, are very new for the ARB. How important is AB32 to CARB’s mission today and in the future?
Nichols: “To put it very simply, for the past 30 years or so the Air Resources Board has been very successful at reducing the amounts of air pollution that harm human health in the air. They’ve done so by continually anticipating and pushing for the cleanest kinds of technologies that were out there.
“But dealing with the problems of global warming requires us to think about energy use and energy efficiency, which was never part of our mandate before. We know to reach the kinds of reduction in greenhouse gases that are needed to really avert the worst effects of global warming, we’re going to have to make major changes that will involve pushing the envelope of energy efficiency everywhere.
“This gives us a whole new focus and it comes at a time when we are going to need to figure out how to look at the measures we’ve been enforcing over the years and now look at them through the lens of climate change.”
LL: Do you want the ARB to be the national leader for emissions limits? Do you want other states and countries to follow your agency’s lead?
Nichols: “I think it’s important for California that other states and agencies join with us in this effort because global warming is a problem that can’t be attacked in just one part of the planet. By definition, a pound of carbon that’s emitted in one part of the world has the same impact on the atmosphere as a pound of carbon that’s emitted somewhere else.
“So we can lead the way in California, although other countries, particularly some of the European countries like Germany and Great Britain in particular, have already staked out leadership positions in a number of different areas relating to climate challenge, so we can’t claim that California is the first to have discovered this or to have worked on the problem.”
“But for a state that has the size, the diversity of economy, the diversity of population, the mix of agriculture and manufacturing, and knowledge industries and high-tech – we definitely are the place that if you can do it here, you can do it anywhere. We look forward to being able to be in a position to not only help green technologies flourish here and around the world, but also to be joined by other countries who will be markets for those kinds of technologies and be sharing their products and their ideas with us.”
LL: I understand that Chairman (Robert) Sawyer regretted never meeting with the governor during his tenure. Do you plan on conducting business differently than your predecessor?
Nichols: “I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with the governor, he interviewed me quite extensively before he offered me the position, and I’ve been called in several times in the last month or so for different meetings or for informal conversations, and that’s been very gratifying.
“He’s a very charming man, as I’m sure his many fans around the world can attest, but he’s also somebody who really conveys a great sense of energy and interest in the works that I’m doing.”
LL: Obviously, the air board is looking at heavy-duty diesel trucks as one of the emissions to regulate. Should truckers expect to continue to see new stringent and restrictive rules come into play, or are drivers seeing a tough time right now that you’re hoping the industry can get through before leveling out?
Nichols: “As an official in a government regulatory agency, I don’t think it’s good policy to be continually going back to the same industry and changing the requirements all the time.
“We try to work on a set of rules that will deal with one particular industry or one particular category of emissions in a comprehensive way and then do something that will stay in effect for at least five or seven years so that people have the chance to absorb what the new requirements are, figure out the most cost-effective ways to comply with the rule.
“Hopefully, if they’ve had to spend a substantial amount of money they have a chance to recoup the cost they’ve put into it before we go back and say we’ve got some new regulations we want to put on you.
“Now, we live in a complicated world and I realize that the Air Resources Board isn’t the only agency out there making requests and demands that affect industry, so sometimes we have to try to be aware of what the other factors are that are influencing a particular industry’s ability to comply with whatever our proposed regulations might be.”
LL: I know California and the EPA have had a battle over carbon-based emissions limits over cars and light trucks. My question is, are heavy trucks next on the list for carbon-based greenhouse gas emissions limits? Is that something that is going to be discussed at a future board meeting?
Nichols: “When we are looking at the air regulations that were developed in order to deal with particulates and (nitrous oxides), the traditional air pollutants that we’ve worried about in connection with ground level pollution, we are now adding in an analysis of what those rules will be on greenhouse gas emissions as well.
“We’re looking at what the impact of those rules will be – we know that there’s going to be some positive change that will occur in any rule that will affect fleet turnover, because newer engines almost always have better fuel economy than the engines they replace and there may be some other benefits from the new technologies as well.
“If it seems that there are ways in which the rules can be looked at which can make them more climate friendly while still achieving the same results that we need to get to meet air quality standards, then we’re going to try and adjust our regulations to do that.”
LL: Chairman, thanks for your time.
MN: “Thank you. It was a good conversation.”
For more information about CARB and California emissions regulations, look for an in-depth news package on the California Air Resources Board and its regulations in the October edition of Land Line Magazine.
– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer