Schumer Backs Nichols to Lead EPA, Dismissing Confirmation Peril

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer has urged President-elect Joe Biden to nominate Mary Nichols to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, a sign of his confidence the California air pollution regulator could be confirmed by the closely divided chamber.

Schumer recently recommended Nichols to the Biden transition team, according to two people familiar with the conversations who asked not to be named discussing personnel matters.

Concerns that Nichols would draw Republican opposition in the Senate have factored in to transition team deliberations, but Schumer’s support could assuage those fears. Nichols has been at the vanguard of American environmentalism for decades, pushing clean air and climate rules in California that set a model for the U.S. but have also made her a prime target for conservatives who argue the Golden State shouldn’t be dictating national policy.

If nominated, Nichols could expect a Senate grilling about her efforts to pressure automakers to oppose the Trump administration’s dialing back of emissions standards as well as California’s plan to eventually ban conventional, gasoline-powered cars. The state’s challenges supplying electricity amid surging power demand and an epic heat wave over the summer also would likely draw scrutiny.

Nichols also faces opponents in the left wing of the Democratic Party. More than 70 environmental groups argued in a letter to Biden’s transition team Thursday that Nichols hadn’t done enough to address the disproportionate burden of pollution on vulnerable communities as head of the California Air Resources Board.

“As demands for racial justice heighten, Covid-19 races through historically redlined neighborhoods and big polluters continue to fuel the climate crisis, we need an EPA leader who will partner with frontline communities to advance truly equitable solutions,” said Gladys Limón, executive director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance, who signed the letter.

Although Nichols “had a unique opportunity and responsibility to address generations of environmental injustice,” she “instead dismissed petitions of frontline communities aimed at both improving their environmental health and preventing further harms from pollution and the climate crisis,” Limón said in a press release.

Signers of the letter, including representatives of Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace USA and the Rainforest Action Network, fault CARB for failing to crack down on local air quality districts where pollution levels are among the worst in the nation. They also blame the agency for the design of a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program that allows the state’s oil refineries, power plants and other industrial facilities to offset their emissions with reductions coming outside the state or the reach of the initiative.

A CARB spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the criticisms. Representatives of the Biden-Harris transition also did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

Push From the Left

The letter dovetails with other efforts by climate activists to discourage Biden from selecting moderates as well as any potential cabinet candidates who have ties to the oil and gas industry.

Other environmental leaders also are under consideration to head the EPA, including Collin O’Mara a former Delaware environmental regulator who is now president of the National Wildlife Federation, and Heather McTeer Toney, a former regional administrator for the agency who now directs grassroots action for the Mom’s Clean Air Force. Progressives also are encouraging Biden to nominate social justice crusader Mustafa Santiago Ali for the role.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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