Q&A: California’s longtime clean air cop talks Trump, China and electric cars

Mary Nichols, the former chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, has fought many battles during her more than 15 years as head of the state’s powerful regulatory agency.

During its first term, CARB required automakers to install catalytic converters to neutralize air pollutants. From 2016 to 2020, she fended off the Trump administration’s attempt to revoke California’s right under the Clean Air Act to set its own air quality standards.

In 2020, Nichols’ final year as chairman of CARB, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order to phase out sales of new gas-powered cars in the state by 2035. The move must still be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and has come under attack from Republicans critical of EV mandates. If former President Donald Trump wins in November, a new emissions battle between California and the federal government is likely.

An environmental lawyer by trade, Nichols now teaches at UCLA and is working on a memoir to encourage young environmentalists to keep their hopes high. She drives a Ford Mustang Mach-E and has lost none of her fighting spirit.

We spoke on the sidelines of the SAFE Summit, a conference that brought investors, policymakers and executives from the auto, battery and mining industries to Washington this week to share their views on electrification and the West’s economic competition with China. Here are highlights from the conversation, which have been edited and condensed for length and clarity:

The American automotive industry is facing a lot of uncertainty surrounding the demand for electric vehicles. We have seen it hybrids do very well – Toyota has been beating that drum for a while – while GM and Ford have gone headlong into BEVs and have done so stumbled badly.

They didn’t stumble much! [pounds table] They haven’t sold as much as they wanted, and they’ve gotten into trouble with some of their investors, but they’re on a path that they’ll continue to follow, and the world will be electric – maybe in a few years. later on.

In California, car sales are trending more and more toward electric cars, and in other places, car sales are rising not as fast as predicted, but quite fast for a major revolutionary change in technology.

Have you become frustrated with all the negative press about the problems with electric vehicle sales?

Look, I’m a little annoyed with the Toyota business, because Toyota was the big pushback against EVs, and they always tooted the horn on hybrids, and so now they’re going to beat their chest about how they were all right. by.

I don’t really have anything against Toyota, but I feel like this is one of those little setbacks you get when the tide is moving in one direction. There are always a few people who are on the margins and say, ‘No, no, no. We need to go the other way.”

Are you concerned about the possibility of another Trump victory – he could roll back fuel economy rules?

When Trump first came to power, he appealed to the car companies, even going to Detroit and trumpeting how he was going to help them by rolling back all the nasty regulations. And they had their list of things they wanted, but they never asked to be exempt from air quality regulations or anything resembling the kind of large-scale prison break that the Trump people were promoting.

And because of that they were burned. It wasn’t just because Trump didn’t get a second term. It was very clear that there would be a backlash from consumers, but also from public opinion.

Meanwhile, Europe was moving forward and China was moving forward, and to be competitive in the world they had to build much more efficient and especially electric cars. So they had to deal with the fact that the president actually wanted them to go back further than they wanted. If it’s Trump again, who knows? Will we see this movie again? Maybe.

Are you concerned that Governor Newsom might have to back off on phasing out new gasoline car sales by 2035 if Trump wins?

No, I’m really not. Because I think that both the economy and the environment demand that we continue on the path we are on. California has never seen a time when there were no attempts to stop or overturn our waivers. From the very beginning, there were always car companies protesting and even suing.

The Clean Air Act is very clear about the fact that as long as California can demonstrate that there is a need for it, and that the technology is feasible, California is entitled to a waiver. Sometimes it took a change in administration to get that idea moving, but ultimately Congress would really have to repeal the Clean Air Act to do what some of these ultraconservatives are calling for.

And despite our position on banning internal combustion engines by 2035, one of the things California has always been known for is reading up on what’s actually going on in the real world. And if California became convinced that there weren’t enough electric vehicles, or that the electric vehicles really weren’t enough to meet consumer needs, they would look at that deadline.

If we could bring Chinese-made electric cars to the US to reduce emissions, would you be in favor of that – if they decided to come in?

Well, so far the Chinese have been quite clear that they are not interested in entering the US market, despite the fear that has been stirred up. They think it is too complicated a market. But there are some big hurdles they have to overcome, including all the US standards and regulations, which their cars can’t always easily meet.

Do you see hydrogen fuel cell cars playing an important role? I’m told you drove a Toyota Mirai for a while.

I rented a Mirai for three years; it was a wonderful car. Refueling was a bit difficult. One of the reasons I decided not to keep it was because there was a fuel shortage at one point. There was a period of a week when there was no hydrogen available within about a hundred miles of LA.

There weren’t enough vehicles for this to be a noticeable disruption in the economy, but it was a major disruption in my life when I couldn’t drive anywhere. The market for those vehicles was so small that no one seriously used hydrogen as a fuel. There was no real offer.

Do you consider hydrogen as a heavier, commercial solution today?

This is always what the Energy Commission believed from the beginning. They felt it was a mistake to focus on the light vehicle market. But that’s where everyone always wants to go first, because that’s where the audience sees them. That’s where all the excitement is, even though in terms of air pollution it’s really about the trucks.

The Biden administration is rolling out its plan to deploy electric vehicle charging and hydrogen fueling infrastructure on the nation’s freight corridors as part of its effort to decarbonize U.S. supply chains and accelerate the adoption of zero-emission large platforms accelerate. The road map released Tuesday aims to concentrate billions of dollars in government spending along major highways and catalyze private investment in the new infrastructure, which is critical to cleaning up diesel pollution from medium- and heavy-duty trucking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *