Politics & Government

Nichols could add to state's clout in U.S. debate on climate change

WASHINGTON — California's Mary Nichols has an idea for how Washington can respond to global warming: Start with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Nichols, the head of the California Air Resources Board, has a big interest in whether that happens. She's believed to be one of two finalists -- along with Lisa Jackson, the outgoing commissioner of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection and a co-chair of Barack Obama's environmental transition team -- to head the agency.

An announcement is expected this week in Chicago, when the president-elect names his environmental team.

If Nichols gets the post, she would add to California's growing clout in crafting a national response to global warming. As powerful committee chairs, California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles are already positioned to take leading roles when the new Congress begins tackling the issue in January.

And if Nichols loses out, it could be a result of geographic considerations. While officials with Obama's transition team have not given any public indication of who will be chosen, some environmental groups say that Jackson may have the upper hand because she would help balance California's power.

Boxer, who has long battled with the EPA over its refusal to allow California to control its own greenhouse gas emissions, has been lobbying on behalf of Nichols. Nichols worked in the EPA under President Clinton as an assistant administrator for air and radiation.

"As far as a candidate, you know that I love Mary Nichols just because I know her so well," Boxer told reporters. "But I think these other candidates that are mentioned are terrific and ... I'm awaiting the president-elect's decision, and I'm excited about it."

While the finalists appear to have been winnowed down to Nichols and Jackson, several other names have been mentioned, including environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Kathleen McGinty, who headed Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection. Jackson, 46, would be the first African American to head the EPA.

Obama is expected to announce his secretaries of energy and the interior and the administrator of the EPA either Wednesday or Thursday. In advance of his announcement, he met Tuesday with former Vice President Al Gore, one of the nation's leading advocates for a plan that would require a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Other Californians still mentioned as possibilities for the environmental team include Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson, as interior secretary, and a darkhorse, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, as energy secretary.

Nichols is one of eight state environmental chiefs who's urging that the EPA take the lead in developing a plan to lower greenhouse gas emissions by amending the Clean Air Act. Under that strategy, carbon dioxide would be classified as an air pollutant and be subject to federal regulation. Boxer, who tried without success to get a global warming bill through the last Congress, backs the idea, now that the EPA won't be run by the Bush administration.

Nichols, a Los Angeles Democrat and former environmental attorney, has headed California's air board since her appointment last year by Schwarzenegger. She has helped lead the state's efforts to cut its greenhouse gas emissions and has criticized the EPA for its refusal to regulate carbon dioxide. Under the Federal Clean Air Act, California has the right to set its own vehicle-emissions standards but needs a waiver from the EPA to do so.

Meanwhile, Nichols, 63, isn't talking. She has confirmed that she's a candidate for the job, but in a meeting with The Sacramento Bee's editorial board last Wednesday, she would not even say whether she had discussed the position with Obama.

"I'm not talking about that," Nichols said. "I've been asked not to talk about it."