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Nichols says the governor has given her a mandate to fight for clean air

July 18, 2007|Margot Roosevelt | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Environmental lawyer Mary Nichols, the newly appointed head of the powerful California Air Resources Board, assured state legislators Tuesday that her mandate from the governor is to "speed up, not slow down" the state's ambitious effort to slash global-warming pollution.

To prove the point, she told the Senate Rules Committee that she has asked the board's staff to reconsider which new regulations can be quickly adopted to cut greenhouse gases, adding that the board will reopen the issue of such early action in October, rather than in December as previously scheduled.

Nichols testified in the wake of allegations by the board's former chairman and chief executive that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's staff sought to weaken global warming rules to placate industry critics. Specifically, Chief of Staff Susan Kennedy and Cabinet Secretary Dan Dunmoyer were accused of forcing the air board to limit initial global warming measures, adopted last month, to three: a low carbon fuel standard, a limit on auto refrigerant gases and the improved capture of landfill methane.

By law, the board was required to identify "discrete early action greenhouse gas reduction measures" by June 2007 which are to be developed into regulations and enforced by 2010. The board is working on 23 other measures to be adopted later.

Schwarzenegger's staff insisted that the governor had not brought pressure on the board to limit the early action agenda.

Nichols, an activist who has worked for Democratic office holders in the past, told the Rules Committee that the three measures were "a start. But that's not the end of it.... The public does want to see action."

Among the additional early rules that environmentalists want are controls on cement plants and diesel trucks -- both heavy emitters of greenhouse gases -- and the electrification of ports, where idling diesel-burning ships emit large amounts of pollutants.

Whether Nichols is able to move quickly on such measures will be one test of how strong a mandate she has to enact tough rules to cut global warming pollution and clean up the air. Another will come next week, when the board is to take up a proposed crackdown on diesel pollution from tractors, cranes and other construction equipment, significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions as well as soot and smog-forming pollutants.

Under California's landmark 2006 legislation, Assembly Bill 32, the state must cut the emission of carbon dioxide and other planet-warming gases to 1990 levels by 2020, an estimated 25% reduction.

The air board is charged with establishing a mandatory reporting system for industries and other sources of greenhouse gases and with deciding how and where to require cutbacks. Some 40% of all the state's carbon dioxide emissions come from cars and trucks. Schwarzenegger has threatened to sue if the Bush administration refuses to allow California to adopt its own auto rules. But the air board may also seek new ways around federal restrictions.

Nichols, whose role will be key in the protracted and controversial process, said that the governor has "given me every assurance I need that I will have the support to go out and clean up the air. And that is what I'm going to do."

As for the fact that Schwarzenegger fired her predecessor, Robert Sawyer, Nichols said, "Bob Sawyer is an outstanding scientist, but he didn't have a relationship with the governor and he didn't have an interest in the political side of the job....

"The implementation of these laws is an intensely political activity, as well as a technical one.

"If we can't get the public to agree, then we don't have a program," she said.

Nichols acknowledged that there were "communication glitches, to put it mildly" in the relations between the governor's staff and the board leadership, but she added, "No person on the governor's staff is under any illusion that their role is to slow down or weaken the goals of AB 32."

Democrats in the Legislature have expressed concern that Schwarzenegger's push for market-based programs to slow global warming emissions will mean replacing mandatory regulations on industry with less effective measures.

"I don't think the ink was dry in signing the law before we saw a slew of executive orders, advisory committees and other actions that at best contradicted -- even controverted -- the very purpose of the law," Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) told Nichols.

Under a market cap-and-trade program, which Schwarzenegger has championed, emissions would be capped overall, but companies could trade pollution credits among themselves. Such systems are controversial because they allow companies to continue polluting if they purchase credits from companies that have reduced their emissions.

Nichols acknowledged that "the governor's enthusiasm for markets, as a salesman, has caused some consternation." But she assured the committee that "you can't create a market without a strict regulatory system that underpins it."

Nichols said she would work closely with the Legislature to implement global warming laws. And committee members gave her a warm reception.

"We are in this together," Perata said. "Lets make this a two-way swinging door." Nichols must be confirmed by the full Senate within a year of her appointment.


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