Claims of ‘Bleak’ Environmental Justice Record Appear to Fell a Biden EPA Favorite

(Article Credit: Coral Davenport, New York Times)

WASHINGTON — When Joseph R. Biden, Jr. won the presidential election, his top candidate to lead the nation’s most powerful environmental agency appeared clear: Mary D. Nichols, California’s clean air regulator and arguably the country’s most experienced climate change official, was seen as a lock to run the Environmental Protection Agency.

Now Mr. Biden’s team is scrambling to find someone else, according to several people who have spoken with the presidential transition team. The chief reason: This month, a group of more than 70 environmental justice groups wrote to the Biden transition charging that Ms. Nichols has a “bleak track record in addressing environmental racism.”

Possible last-minute candidates, those people said, include Michael S. Regan, a senior North Carolina environmental official, Richard L. Revesz, a New York University law professor, and Basil Seggos, head of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, none of whom had been in serious contention for the job until late last week. The Biden team is also considering asking Gina McCarthy, who ran the agency in the Obama administration, to return.

The environmental justice groups cited Ms. Nichols’s role in pushing California’s cap-and-trade program, which is designed to broadly reduce pollution of planet-warming greenhouse gases — but disproportionately does so at the expense, the groups said, of communities of color by exposing them to more pollutants like smog and soot. The groups charged that Ms. Nichols had repeatedly disregarded or dismissed the concerns of those communities about the effects of the climate policies she enacted.

The letter appears to have resonated: One of Mr. Biden’s key campaign pledges was a promise to address environmental justice, highlighting the need to protect poor and minority communities that are exposed to more pollution than rich communities.

While Mr. Biden had expected that Ms. Nichols would be criticized by Republicans for her history of pushing tough regulations on industries, he was caught off guard by the intense objections to Ms. Nichols from liberals.

The influence of those groups, and Mr. Biden’s reactions to their push, appears to be another signal of the increasing tensions between the left and moderate factions of the Democratic Party. Mr. Biden has already been subject to criticism from the left for some of his cabinet picks, even as he explicitly attempts to build a cabinet of racial and gender diversity.

A spokesman for the Biden transition team declined to comment.

From the perspective of environmental progressives, the push to oust Ms. Nichols in the name of environmental justice is of a piece with “the battle for the soul of the party,” said Rich Gold, an energy and environment lobbyist and former senior E.P.A. adviser in the Clinton administration.

Progressive groups and advocates of environmental justice policies say they are heartened that their voices are being heard, and say that elevated consideration of those matters is long overdue.

“Equity and justice were on the ballot,” said Tina Johnson, director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, who signed the letter urging Mr. Biden not to appoint Ms. Nichols. “Being transformative means being willing to walk the walk.”

“I’m happy to hear those concerns, from the environmental justice perspective, have been heard,” Ms. Johnson said.

But many veteran professionals in the world of environmental policy say that by dropping Ms. Nichols from consideration to head the government agency that will likely be Mr. Biden’s most important tool in confronting global warming, the president-elect is significantly weakening his chances of enacting tough, legally sound rules to fight climate change.

“There is no one like Mary,” Mr. Gold said. “I don’t always agree with her. But let’s talk about the qualifications for the job. There’s just no one who has the leadership experience on climate at the state level, and at the senior political level at E.P.A.”

Even Ms. Nichols’s opponents agree that her experience would have made her a formidable executor of Mr. Biden’s climate agenda.

“If I was Joe Biden and I was looking for someone to implement the green agenda, I’d pick Mary Nichols,” said Steven J. Milloy, who worked on President Trump’s E.P.A. transition team and now runs a website promoting false information about climate change. “She’s dedicated, she’s experienced, she knows the job backward and forward. I don’t agree with a single thing she does. She is a ‘damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead’ type of environmentalist.”

Ms. Nichols, 75, was first appointed to run California’s clean air program in 1979 by Gov. Jerry Brown. In the decades since, she has been at the helm of that program as California has been at the vanguard of environmental policy, passing ambitious, first-in-the-nation measures on pollution control and conservation that have often served as models for national and even international environmental law.

During the Clinton administration, she joined the E.P.A. as its top clean air official, then returned to California, where she ran the state’s pioneer cap-and-trade climate change program under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. During the Obama administration, it was Ms. Nichols who helped broker a deal with the federal government and the nation’s largest automakers, which took California’s stringent regulations on planet-warming auto emissions and applied them nationwide. Just as President Barack Obama borrowed clean air and climate change strategies from California, Mr. Biden is widely expected to do the same.

In an interview last week, when she was still seen as a top contender for the E.P.A. job, Ms. Nichols pushed back forcefully at the contention that she has been insensitive to environmental justice issues.

“California is at the forefront of actions anywhere in the nation and the world to direct attention and funding to underfunded communities,” she said.

Ms. Nichols noted that the primary objection of environmental justice groups has been her embrace of California’s cap-and-trade policy, a system under which the state has placed a tightening cap on greenhouse emissions from stationary sources but allows companies to buy and sell permits to pollute.

Economists have said for years that the most effective way to reduce climate pollution is to put a price on emissions, thus driving the market away from pollution.

But environmental justice advocates have maintained that the cap-and-trade system privileges corporations over communities by allowing companies to pay to pollute.

At least one major academic study, however, has countered that position. In a paper published this year by the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers found that California’s cap-and-trade system had actually led to decreased local pollution in disadvantaged communities.

Ms. Nichols observed that the study appeared to have done little to dissuade the view, long held by environmental justice advocates, that cap-and-trade programs are fundamentally wrong.

“It’s a moral objection to the notion of people paying to pollute,” Ms. Nichols said.