By Chris Lang
Mary Nichols, the chair of the California Air Resources Board since 2007, is a leading contender to head the Environmental Protection Agency under the new US President-Elect Joe Biden. “If they offered it, I would take it,” Nichols told the Associated Press.
Environmental justice groups in California have written to Biden urging him to reject Nichols as a prospective nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
As chair of the California Air Resources Board, Nichols has consistently pushed industry-friendly carbon trading. California’s cap-and-trade scheme created a carbon market allowing big polluters off the hook, allowing them to continue polluting as long as they buy pollution allowances. Many polluters have benefitted from free pollution allowances. In 2018, Nichols admitted that the state is “not on a line to meet the 2030 target”.
Under California’s cap-and-trade scheme, pollution from the oil and gas industry has actually increased.
In a statement about the letter, Gladys Limón, Executive Director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), said,
“As CARB Chair for well over ten years, Mary Nichols had a unique opportunity and responsibility to address generations of environmental injustice in California, as she was urged by community members time and time again. Regrettably, over the years she instead dismissed petitions of frontline communities aimed at both improving their environmental health and preventing further harms from pollution and the climate crisis.
“As demands for racial justice heighten, COVID-19 races through historically redlined neighborhoods, and big polluters continue to fuel the climate crisis, we need an EPA leader who will partner with frontline communities to advance truly equitable solutions that center the well-being of people, not industries.”
Here is the letter to the Biden-Harris Transition Team (also available here, with the list of signatories):
December 2, 2020
Re: EPA Administrator Appointment
To the Biden-Harris Transition Team:
We write to respectfully express our concerns with the candidacy of Mary Nichols for Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Given President-Elect Biden’s stated commitment to environmental justice, we would like to call to your attention Ms. Nichols’ bleak track record in addressing environmental racism. We encourage you to instead seek other candidates with demonstrated commitment to climate and environmental justice.
- Mary Nichols and the California Air Resources Board (CARB), under her leadership, have repeatedly disregarded the recommendations of the environmental justice bodies established to uphold the integrity of California’s environmental policies, especially as to how they harm or benefit low-income communities of color in the most polluted areas of the state.
- The Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (EJAC) has convened since 2007 to guide the state’s climate Scoping Plan, which implements California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. The EJAC’s key recommendations were consistently disregarded and thus omitted from the final climate Scoping Plan.
- EJAC members have expressed frustrations with Ms. Nichols’ contentious interactions with them, lack of understanding of the disproportionate burden of pollution on environmental justice communities, and her overall approach. She has repeatedly dismissed proposed solutions brought forward by community members who have worked on the underlying issues for many years, while at times displaying condescension.
- The first EJAC process was so contentious under Ms. Nichols’ watch that many of the EJAC members resigned, some of whom then turned around to sue the state for its disregard of environmental justice impacts from the misguided climate plan that Ms. Nichols was pushing. The last two EJAC bodies called for the reconvening of the Adaptive Management Plan process that would study and address the localized impacts of industrial emissions increases, including co-pollutants, under the climate program. However, staff have not followed through, even when CARB Board members asked for these studies.
- Similarly, in 2018, the Independent Emissions Market Advisory Committee (IEMAC), California’s official cap and trade oversight committee, warned that domestic forest carbon offsets, which represent the vast majority of offsets used in California, were deeply problematic and ineffective to meet California’s climate targets. The IEMAC and state legislators called for an independent review, but CARB denied them. A recent paper from the Center for Environmental Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley bolsters IEMAC’s position.
- During Ms. Nichols’ tenure as Chair of CARB, she has staunchly pursued and defended carbon trading, while minimizing state policies that required direct emission reductions and other climate policy implementing programs that benefit environmental justice communities. As warned by environmental justice advocates, cap and trade has increased pollution hotspots for communities of color in California, exacerbating pollution health and safety harms. The cap and trade program and other market mechanisms—which commodify the source of the climate crisis that most severely threatens global communities of color and low-income people — account for a modest reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and has not been successful in meeting California’s climate goals. Further, these modest cumulative reductions have not occurred uniformly. In fact, for over half of the regulated facilities in the state, localized emissions of greenhouse gases and toxic co-pollutants have actually gone up. Unsurprisingly, the increased pollution tends to be in communities with a 34 percent higher proportion of people of color, and 23 percent higher proportion of people living in poverty. Ms. Nichols and the CARB, in initially designing the carbon trading system, were fully aware of the disproportionate impacts that cap and trade would have on the health of low-income communities of color. Yet, they championed this strategy that perpetrated environmental racism.
- Further, under Ms. Nichols’ leadership, the CARB has designed its cap and trade program to include a significant share of carbon offsets. This further exacerbates pollution hotspots because offsets allow industries to continue to pollute fenceline communities by purchasing reductions out of state or from industries not currently regulated by the program. Carbon offsets have enabled California polluters, especially large oil refineries and dirty power plant operators, to emit an additional 200 million tons of greenhouse gases — again, disproportionately burdening communities of color with toxic co-pollutants. Even though many of these offsets are of dubious integrity, Ms. Nichols was also a proponent of expanding California’s program to allow for international offsets, which are even riskier. Dozens of environmental justice, Indigenous, environmental, forest and scientific groups and thousands of their members submitted letters over the last several years to Ms. Nichols and the CARB opposing California’s development of international offsets, but they ignored this swell of concern. In a November 2020 letter to Ms. Nichols, the environmental justice community called for the suspension of the offset program, especially since major users of offsets operate in the neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19, given residents’ respiratory health already compromised by cumulative impacts.
- Under Ms. Nichols’ leadership, the CARB has failed to be responsive to the needs and petitions of environmental justice communities in other numerous ways. For example, Ms. Nichols has failed to move CARB to exercise its powers over the state’s various air quality management districts. California has several air districts that do not meet Federal Air Quality Standards. California communities in the San Joaquin Valley and South Coast Air Basins are regularly in the top 10 most polluted cities in the Country. CARB continues to approve State Implementation Plans for these two districts, although the U.S. EPA disapproves portions of the plans. Communities hit hardest by air pollution depend on the air districts to fulfill their mandates on attainment of federal clean air standards, and yet CARB has not acted within its powers to press the air districts to act with full rigor.
- Ms. Nichols’ failure to address the needs of environmental justice communities is also exemplified by her failure to adequately oversee implementation of the AB 617 Community Air Protection Program. AB 617 requires the development of community emission reduction plans for communities across the state overburdened with some of the deadliest air pollution in the country. The primary goal of AB 617 is to reduce emissions beyond what is already otherwise required by law. Throughout the lifespan of the program, CEJA and other advocates have requested that CARB require concrete, quantifiable, and enforceable emission reduction measures in order to meet the law’s promise. Instead, AB 617’s implementation has largely been centered on form rather than substance, and after three years, communities are mostly left with aspirational and vague reduction measures that do not go beyond what is already required. Despite a tremendous injection of state funds, under Ms. Nichols’ leadership the Community Air Protection Program has thus far denied the widespread relief from emissions communities desperately need.
- Finally, a few months ago CARB Black employees issued a grievance letter calling out systemic racism at CARB and outlining examples of discriminatory treatment against Black and other employees of color, including being subjected to disparaging remarks about environmental justice advocates. Cultural competence and racial equity values of any governmental agency leader are of utmost importance in setting organizational standards, expectations and practices.
These are some examples of how Mary Nichols has disregarded environmental justice, communities of color, and climate programs that benefit frontline communities. They regretfully show that she is not fit to lead an EPA that values environmental justice. Her inability to work well with environmental justice groups and leaders in California indicates that she is not the right person to oversee and implement climate and environmental programs for the country.
We respectfully urge your administration to seek and nominate a candidate for EPA Administrator with a proven track record of working with low-income and communities of color in advancing environmental justice solutions.