Calif. regulator who battled Pruitt ‘hopeful’ about Wheeler

Source: By Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Mary Nichols, a key player in the contentious negotiations over Obama-era clean car rules, may have reason to be optimistic this week.

Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, says she’s hoping newly minted EPA acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler will throw a wrench into the discussions over the tailpipe standards.

“We haven’t had an opportunity to meet with Andrew Wheeler. So we don’t know whether he’ll take a different approach,” Nichols said in a phone interview yesterday from her office in Sacramento.

“We’re certainly hopeful, given his background as someone who’s worked with agencies and actually done a stint with EPA,” she said, referring to Wheeler’s time at EPA in the 1990s and as a top aide to former Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.).

In particular, CARB hopes Wheeler will “be quicker to embrace a pragmatic approach in responding to the auto industry’s real concerns about implementing the standards that were adopted back in 2012, and that we will be able to have a fairly substantive dialogue with the administration,” Nichols added.

Nichols is a seasoned negotiator respected for her willingness to both strike a compromise and speak her mind. She’s known to break the ice at meetings by showing up with a Tupperware full of chocolate chip cookies.

The regulator didn’t always see eye-to-eye with former EPA boss Scott Pruitt, who resigned Friday amid a cloud of ethics scandals.

In May, Nichols took to Twitter to blast a meeting she had with representatives from EPA, the Transportation Department and the White House (Greenwire, May 25).

“Sounds like a great meeting based on the WH press release,” Nichols wrote. “Too bad it’s not the one we attended.” The White House had described the meeting as “productive.”

More recently, Nichols met with Pruitt toward the tail end of his tenure while he was visiting EPA Region 9 offices in San Francisco (Greenwire, June 29).

Pruitt described the meeting as “good.” But Nichols struck a more combative note on Twitter: “We may have bonded over baked goods but the conversation was all business because we’re not backing up or slowing down on cleaner cars & climate action.”

Asked whether CARB had requested a meeting with Wheeler, Nichols laughed and said, “He was just appointed a few days ago. And I think a lot of folks are on vacation. If he doesn’t call us, we’ll call him.”

The clean car negotiations kicked off in April, when Pruitt announced that the Obama-era standards for models years 2022 to 2025 were “inappropriate” and should be revised (E&E News PM, April 2).

EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have submitted a proposal for the revised greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards to the White House Office of Management and Budget, where it is now pending.

A draft obtained by E&E News outlines eight scenarios. In the “preferred” scenario, fuel economy targets would be frozen at 2020 levels through 2026 (E&E News PM, April 27). That would set up a protracted legal battle with California and the 12 states that have adopted more stringent standards.

For months, rumors have swirled about potential dates when the Trump administration could unveil the proposal, only for those dates to come and go without any action.

Asked when she expected the proposal to clear OMB review, Nichols said she was in the dark like everyone else.

“There’s rumors around,” she said. “There have been various dates proposed in the past and not met. We’ve heard rumors that something will be proposed by the end of July. But we really don’t know.”