Bryson also may face management challenges within Edison. Some observers say mid-level executives at the utility have been slow to grasp environmental concerns and the importance of energy conservation.
"Edison's middle management is still somewhat confused about whether it should be selling more electricity or less," said Amory Lovins, the well-known alternative energy proponent who is a Bryson supporter.
Bryson can be expected to attract critics among those opposed to the SDG&E merger and others who believe the AQMD plan is not strong enough.
"We'll have our differences," predicted William S. Shaffran, deputy city attorney of San Diego, where public and private agencies from the mayor to the Chamber of Commerce strongly oppose the proposed merger.
Bryson raised eyebrows recently when he got the NRDC to endorse an Edison plan for offsetting air pollution increases expected to result from a merger with SDG&E.
Many believe the NRDC position helped persuade AQMD to go along with the pollution reduction plan.
"John asked me to take a look at this issue," NRDC's Ralph Cavanagh said. "There's no question, given John's connections in the environmental community, that he had the ability to get an issue on the (NRDC) agenda."
Was it the "old-boy network" at work?
"I wouldn't describe it as the old-boy network," Bryson said. "It meant that I had the acquaintance of many of the NRDC (staff) and I hoped, based on my work in the past, I had the respect of those people."
Bryson also opposes one of the favorite projects of environmental activists in California--passage of Proposition 128, the environmental initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot known as "Big Green" by its supporters.
Bryson praises the measure's "worthy objectives," but said he is concerned that, for the utility company, it may be too "inflexible."
Many environmentalists have no illusions about where Bryson's main allegiances are now.
"I think (Bryson's) loyal to his company," said Mary Nichols, a senior attorney in NRDC's Los Angeles office. "He's not going to do anything as CEO of Edison to compromise the interest of shareholders."
But, she added, "I think his view of his responsibilities and philosophy of how he carries them out will clearly have a broader environmental component than any previous CEO of Southern California Edison--or any other head of a utility in the country."
Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce President Ray Remy, who occasionally plays tennis with Bryson, said the Edison executive called recently to ask whether his NRDC history posed a problem for the chamber. Remy told him it did not.
Bryson, who lives in South Pasadena with his wife, Louise, and four children, said many people might consider his environmental career "the most intriguing part of my background. But, in terms of what I have learned and bring to the job . . . I don't know that I would say that NRDC contributed more."
Although Bryson is expected to generally follow the course at Edison set by the departing Allen, the new chairman will have a decidedly different management style. Allen was known for his sometimes gruff, no-nonsense demeanor, in contrast to Bryson's conciliatory approach.
Bryson's style and background in the environmental movement can be expected to not only reap public relations dividends, but prove to be an advantage in working with environmental groups and making life easier for Edison down the road.
In contrast to Bryson's unorthodox corporate career path, Allen worked at Edison since 1954 and gradually rose through the ranks. Before retiring, he served as president as well as chairman and chief executive officer. Bryson, however, will not hold all three positions. Executive Vice President Michael R. Peevey will serve under Bryson as president.
Peevey may counterbalance Bryson's image as an environmentalist. Peevey's career includes a 10-year stint as president of the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance, an industry-labor coalition that most often opposed environmental agendas.
Bryson, who grew up in Portland, Ore., graduated from Stanford University and Yale Law School. In 1970, he was among a group that used a Ford Foundation grant to found the NRDC.
"The idea was an organization that would base itself on good science and careful advocacy," he said.
Today, NRDC is one of the country's leading environmental organizations. It has sued the federal government so often that some have called NRDC the "shadow EPA." More recently, NRDC sparked a nationwide controversy when it released a report warning that apples sprayed with the pesticide Alar were unsafe.
In 1974, Bryson married and left the environmental group to work for a private law firm in Portland.
By 1976, he was back in California, as chairman of the State Water Resources Control Board during the administration of Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. There he became a valuable intermediary for bureaucrats vying for the governor's ear.