(Bloomberg) -- Mary Nichols, California’s top air regulator, is gearing up for a battle with the Trump administration over the future of U.S. auto pollution standards.
Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said last week that emission targets previously agreed to by California and the auto industry are too stringent and should be revised. Pruitt also said it was considering whether to revoke a waiver that has allowed California to set its own, tougher standards and push for the adoption of electric cars.
Nichols has vowed to fight back—although she’s also signaled willingness to adjust California’s regulations as long as the state’s emission-reduction goals are upheld. The rules agreed to by California, Obama-era federal regulators, and the auto industry in 2011 call for boosting fuel economy to more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025.
As chair of the California Air Resources Board since 2007, Nichols has been long been seen as the world’s preeminent auto regulator. She’s been working to clean up smoggy air in her state since the 1970s, when she first served as chair of the air board during California Governor Jerry Brown’s initial time in office. Now that Brown is governor again and smog is a thing of the past, he and Nichols have a shared goal for getting 5 million zero-emission cars on California roads by 2030. Nichols’ use of quotas to stimulate sales of electric vehicles is now under threat from a Trump administration that views regulations as job killers.
Bloomberg sat down with Nichols on Tuesday, her 73rd birthday, at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Future of Energy Summit in New York to talk about her work and legacy. The following excerpt has been condensed and edited.
This is an interesting moment. The Trump administration is considering revoking California’s ability to set its own car pollution rules. What role do you see yourself playing?
I was part of the board that adopted the first regulations that required the auto companies to put catalytic converters on cars. We were the first place to require lead to be taken out of gasoline. People in Southern California no longer have to breathe the kind of pollution they did back in the 1970s, and I’m not going back.
Why is it important for California to keep its waiver to regulate car emissions?
As the home of 30 percent of all sales we can push the envelope with the car companies and get them to bring to market technologies that they might otherwise be reluctant to introduce on a national scale. And to try them in a market which is very open to advanced technologies, with a population that is very interested in environmental qualities.
So from the very beginning car companies have used the argument that [EPA Administrator] Scott Pruitt used in his findings last week—that cars that meet the California standards are going to be too expensive, and people won’t buy them, and that will slow down the adoption of cleaner cars. In fact the opposite is true.
We agree that cars that meet our standards at various times have cost a few hundred dollars more than they would in other places, but it has never been enough to deter people from buying California cars. And, in fact, the car companies have come around to introducing California cars nationwide even before they were required to do it.
Pruitt argues that California shouldn’t dictate pollution rules for the rest of the country.
We don’t dictate pollution rules for the rest of the country and we don’t try to. What we do is to adopt rules that we think are necessary and feasible to meet our environmental needs and what we’ve found is very frequently—in fact in every case I can think of—the rest of the country has decided they wanted to follow our lead. But they don’t have to. We can’t mandate that.
Automakers say the current rules adopted under the Obama administration will make cars more expensive. Are you concerned that this push could make it harder for average working people to afford transportation?
So what we found is while it may not be the only factor in making decisions about which vehicle to buy, consumer do look at fuel economy when they make choices about what cars to buy and they prefer cars that have better fuel economy. The fact is even with today’s relatively low gas prices, a consumer begins to reap benefits the minute they drive a new car off the lot.
What happens if the Trump administration prevails? It seems as if the shift to electric vehicles is inevitable. So why does it ultimately matter if there's a regulatory rollback right now?
First of all, we are in a race against time when it comes to the fate of the planet, not to be too dramatic about this. Gasses that are emitted today stay in the atmosphere for a very long time. The more that we can capture now, the better it is in the long term for our kids and grandkids. There are also the direct health benefits that come from meeting better standards, tougher standards. If you are raising a child today, it doesn’t do you much good to have cleaner air years from now, because the damage to that child’s lungs are being done right now while they are growing.
So there is no virtue in pushing back state standards. And we don’t try to adopt standards that are irrelevant. We try to adopt standards that will push in the direction of the entire market, in the direction that it is already going, but will help it get there faster.
Can California push ahead with its own standard if the federal government relaxes its emissions target?
And would we get two markets that are effectively blue states driving cleaner, more expensive cars and red states driving dirtier, cheaper cars?
No. The U.S. is not a monolith, and there are places in the country where people prefer to drive pickup trucks and they do. That’s what they feel like they need to live, the lifestyle they want. Nothing we’re doing will prevent people from driving those kinds of vehicles if that’s what they want.
You’ve overseen the establishment of significant regulation in California—cap and trade, low-carbon fuel standard. What do you see as your most important legacy?
That smart regulations can drive technology. Let somebody else come and want to do my job who is 30 years younger than I. That’s what I want. It’s open for business.
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