Chair, California Air Resources Board; public interest litigator; California environmental agency head, EPA executive
Interview Year: 2016
Watching civil rights lawyers in action when she worked in voter registration drives made Mary Nichols want to be a lawyer. In 1991, she was hunting for a job as a public interest lawyer in Los Angeles. She joined the Center for Law in the Public Interest and took the only vacant position to work on air pollution. Today, she is at the top of her game and her field as the Chair of the California Air Resources Board, the powerful state agency that has launched the most comprehensive regulatory program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. She held the same post reporting to the same Governor, Jerry Brown, from 1974-1978!
In between her CARB posts, Nichols served in both private law practice and as founder of the Los Angeles office of the Natural Resources Defense Council. She headed the federal air and radiation programs at EPA in Washington from 1993-1997 and oversaw the development of many groundbreaking new air pollution rules to carry out the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, including phaseout of chemicals depleting the ozone layer. While respecting the federal oversight role, she champions California’s leadership in environmental protection, a status advanced in the federal Clean Air Act provisions allowing California to set more stringent auto standards than national rules. She is proud of the big reductions in auto pollution and smog achieved by the state’s tough auto standards, but observes that advanced technology can be used to defeat compliance with standards as well as to meet them. She notes that the use of undetected defeat devices in the ‘Volkswagen episode” showed that the agency was going to have to make some changes.
Nichols credits California’s tradition of public and political support for allowing state government to pioneer with cutting-edge environmental programs. Her leadership has played no small part in sustaining that tradition.