Mary Nichols fell from the frontrunner position this week after 74 activists signed a letter to the Biden transition team arguing that she hadn’t worked well with environmental justice groups. | Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo
SAN FRANCISCO — The last-minute toppling of Mary Nichols as the leading contender for the nation’s highest environmental post has left many in California’s green movement quietly seething at more liberal colleagues who openly advocated against her.
Nichols, the state’s longtime California Air Resources Board chair, was often considered the most qualified leader in contention for the Environmental Protection Agency position and believed to have been the frontrunner for weeks, enjoying support from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and numerous House Democrats.
But Biden on Thursday chose to nominate Michael Regan, the top environmental regulator for North Carolina who has been praised for his work on behalf of poor and minority communities. It came after California environmental justice advocates wrote a letter to the Biden transition team urging the president-elect to choose someone other than Nichols, whom they said had not done enough to curb pollution in the state’s hardest-hit neighborhoods.
Their victory portends more clout for environmental justice advocates, within California and nationally.
California mainstream environmentalists have expressed their frustration and anger behind the scenes. But almost none was willing to publicly criticize the progressive movement nor openly advocate for Nichols in the final days before Biden made his decision. It’s not clear how much effect the environmental justice letter had, but Biden’s choice means California will not have one of its own leading U.S. EPA.
“I’ve been a bit challenged in understanding the political calculus or positioning of some of the groups that have come out strongly in opposition to a Californian leading the Environmental Protection Agency,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), one of the few people willing to speak on the record about Nichols losing out. “Ultimately I feel it’s a really lost opportunity for California, for the country and for us in the environmental justice advocacy world.”
Nichols fell from the frontrunner position this week after 74 activists signed a letter to the Biden transition team arguing that she hadn’t worked well with environmental justice groups. Although environmental justice groups have long protested the state’s cap-and-trade program and associated policies, mainstream environmentalists didn’t anticipate they would air those grievances on the national level, or that they would get the traction that they did.
Biden may also have been concerned that Nichols would face a tough road to confirmation in a Republican-held Senate. Regardless of the weight the environmental justice letter had, it laid bare a difference in tactics that has distinguished the EJ movement for years in California.
Where mainstream environmental groups often take measured positions on legislation and regulations they don’t fully support, environmental justice groups are more strident, staging protests at CARB meetings and refusing to endorse market-based policies. That approach has helped them to claim victories like the spending of at least 35 percent of cap-and-trade proceeds in disadvantaged communities.
“With all the successes that the environmental justice groups have had within California, they have typically started with a form of conflict, then collaboration,” said Michael Mendez, an environmental policy professor at University of California, Irvine and author of the recent book “Climate Change from the Streets.”
“The letter reflected the zeitgeist moment that we’re living in,” Mendez said. “It’s a new era. And a new political calculus for ambitious policymakers working in the climate sphere.”
Environmental justice groups’ opposition to Nichols’ nomination has become a case study of the tension between the left and more centrist wings of the Democratic Party. Nichols is a towering figure in environmental policy, having served as CARB chair under three governors, implemented the state’s economywide carbon cap and held the line against the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks. But groups representing disadvantaged communities charge she hasn’t done enough to rein in the conventional air pollution that persists in many areas of the state and has contributed to asthma and other health problems.
Nichols ultimately found herself in the same position that other California politicians have on the national stage: pilloried by the in-state left while being considered too liberal for red states. Some compared Nichols’ treatment to how Vice President-elect Kamala Harris fared when she ran for president. And state Attorney General Xavier Becerra has already been branded as a “radical” Californian by Republicans despite facing criticism from liberals for not doing enough on police reform.
“I think EJ is nuts,” said one former lawmaker. “Seriously. I would rather know the person in charge than not know them. How many of these folks have Michael Regan’s cell number? Just Politics 101.”
But Martha Arguello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles and a signatory of the letter against Nichols, said principles were more important than access to a Californian.
“The environmental justice community does not trade in that kind of ‘Oh, somehow she’s from California or they’re from California, I will have access, and that is actually more important than somebody’s record on the issue that I care most about,'” she said.
A trickle of endorsements began flowing in the following days, including a letter from 29 House Democrats and one from two Latino state officials. Another letter, from 164 California officials, environmentalists and academics, was sent Wednesday.
Behind the scenes, mainstream environmentalists were incensed at the attack but kept quiet for various reasons: They felt they would make the situation worse for Nichols by responding publicly or they didn’t want to jeopardize their relationships with EJ groups.
“I tried to get environmentalists to say something; they just said, ‘It’s too awkward for us,'” said CARB board member Dan Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Davis.
The handful of mainstream environmentalists willing to speak on the record were deferential to the growing power of the environmental justice movement.
“People that have ignored the environmental justice community have done so at their own peril,” said Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California. “It’s not a fleeting issue, it’s not a flash in the pan; this is what California politics are going to look like for the indefinite future.”
“The reason I’m thrilled with them having more power is because even if we disagree, it’s a very small percentage of the time, and in the fight we’re in for climate change and protecting the environment, we need all the powerful allies we can get.”
Environmentalists are hoping the two wings of the movement can stick together despite the fracture. State lawmakers are expected to introduce a proposal in the upcoming session to rein in hydraulic fracturing, and potentially another that would attempt to mandate minimum distances between oil and gas wells and homes, schools and other sensitive sites.
The Air Resources Board, meanwhile, is implementing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s September executive order calling for an end to new internal-combustion passenger vehicles by 2035 and is updating the “scoping plan” that sets out which policies it will use to reach its 2030 emissions targets. Environmental justice groups want less reliance on cap-and-trade and more emphasis on direct pollution reduction at industrial facilities located near low-income neighborhoods.
“It’s been very hurtful to see this eating of our own,” said one environmentalist. “I reject the split. Some people have tried to create one, but I think we’re all trying to get the same thing, and that breaks my heart.”
Not all environmental justice advocates agreed with the letter, but all agree that the movement’s star is rising.
“This is a better time for EJ than for mainstream,” said Luis Olmedo, executive director of the Imperial Valley group Comite Civico del Valle. “Let’s take our seat. Let’s stop walking around the table.”
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