California’s top carbon cop takes on the state’s top polluters
The nations of the world gathered in early December under the United Nations banner in Doha, Qatar, to discuss the ever more obvious warming of the planet. First, they faced a simple truth: Scant progress has been made in the last decades to protect the world’s populations from the dangers of climate change.
With the United States and other key countries represented in Qatar unwilling to cross the threshold and commit to sweeping cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, who can we look to for direction?
So far, it’s to the states … especially California.
And Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the most influential climate regulator in the world today, is foremost among the leaders now confronting global warming full force.
Under Nichols’ direction, CARB has taken up a three-part mission that resembles one out of science fiction: Lead the fight against a global danger, implement the early-stage rollout of a low-carbon economy and provide a model that others might follow. Just a few weeks ago, Nichols’ agency made history when it held the first-ever US auction of greenhouse-gas pollution.
“We have set a price on carbon,” Nichols said. “It’s a big milestone, a real victory … Investors had faith in this market.”
Governments and energy-industry leaders around the world have a keen eye focused on the work of Nichols and her team. Educated at Cornell University and Yale Law School, Nichols worked for the National Resources Defense Council then rose to become an assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton.
In 2006, the lifelong Democrat let Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talk her into accepting her current position as the director of CARB. Known for her capacity to turn bold vision into achievable goals, Nichols hasn’t looked back since.
The mid-November cap-and-trade auction, a result of Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 signed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is the most ambitious piece on the chessboard at the moment. Basically, the program holds greenhouse-gas emitters responsible for the pollution they put into the atmosphere. The auction sells and trades pollution allowances; it will cover 85 percent of California’s emissions by 2015. At its moment of opening, the auction was instantly the largest emissions trading system in the country and the second largest in the world behind the European Union.
Though some environmentalists say they prefer a carbon tax to cap-and-trade, Nichols believes the “cap” aspect is needed and that a mere tax would give regulators reduced ability to ensure emission reductions.
The price-per-pollution credit at the most recent auction came in a bit lower than anticipated — $10.09 per metric ton of carbon — but still generated $290 million on its first day and will eventually raise billions for the state and, particularly, efforts to further reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Nichols found irony in the fact that shortly before its launch, many were worried that the price for allowances would actually be too high. “Fears run both ways,” she said.
In 2015, fuels and natural gas will also come under the cap — an eventuality Nichols said will make the market even more interesting to investors.
Cap-and-trade, of course, is just part of CARB’s AB 32-related work. Last January, Nichols oversaw the enactment of sweeping “clean car” rules — the latest in decades’ worth of clean-air initiatives which ultimately seek to revolutionize the automobile industry. Indeed, 15 percent of all new cars sold in California by 2025 will emit little or no pollution. And, once again, other states (this time 13) have signed up to replicate.
Though auto manufacturers were at first opposed to changes, they now embrace the inevitable — a future full of clean-car vehicles. Nichols wishes she could say the same for how the oil industry will adopt to change. While there has been some progress, she is not naive about the road ahead.
“The petrochemical industry is not interested in making big changes unless they absolutely have to,” she said. After all, “We’re dependent on them for a product that most of us use every day.”
Still, she remains optimistic.
“One observation I’ve made over all these years [is that] the way we’ve always been successful is to start with the vehicle. Push the automobile industry to find technical fixes. [Eventually], the fuel had to follow what the car needed.”
On yet another front, Nichols’ team is at work figuring out how to enforce state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s Senate Bill 375, a 2008 law that requires CARB to set targets for emissions from vehicles in cities.
“Lots of thinking goes into what the next steps should be,” said Nichols. “We’re very eager to share and encourage others to join us in these efforts.”
Does Nichols believe we humans can avert the most severe predictions about climate change, even as 2012 proceeds on track to becoming the ninth-hottest year on record?
A self-described “realistic optimist,” Nichols’ answer is yes, we can.
“The climate deniers are in remission after the election and in the aftermath of Sandy,” she said. “It’s really important to face the science. … Then it’s time to take action and look at new ideas to solve problems.”
Melinda Welsh is an editor with Sacramento News & Review.