When Joseph R. Biden, Jr. won the presidential election, his top candidate to lead the nation’s most powerful environmental agency appeared clear: Mary D. Nichols, California’s clean air regulator and arguably the country’s most experienced climate change official, was seen as a lock to run the Environmental Protection Agency.
Now Mr. Biden’s team is scrambling to find someone else, according to several people who have spoken with the presidential transition team. The chief reason: This month, a group of more than 70 environmental justice groups wrote to the Biden transition charging that Ms. Nichols has a “bleak track record in addressing environmental racism.”
Possible last-minute candidates, those people said, include Michael S. Regan, a senior North Carolina environmental official, Richard L. Revesz, a New York University law professor, and Basil Seggos, head of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, none of whom had been in serious contention for the job until late last week. The Biden team is also considering asking Gina McCarthy, who ran the agency in the Obama administration, to return.
The environmental justice groups cited Ms. Nichols’s role in pushing California’s cap-and-trade program, which is designed to broadly reduce pollution of planet-warming greenhouse gases — but disproportionately does so at the expense, the groups said, of communities of color by exposing them to more pollutants like smog and soot. The groups charged that Ms. Nichols had repeatedly disregarded or dismissed the concerns of those communities about the effects of the climate policies she enacted.
The letter appears to have resonated: One of Mr. Biden’s key campaign pledges was a promise to address environmental justice, highlighting the need to protect poor and minority communities that are exposed to more pollution than rich communities.
While Mr. Biden had expected that Ms. Nichols would be criticized by Republicans for her history of pushing tough regulations on industries, he was caught off guard by the intense objections to Ms. Nichols from liberals.
The influence of those groups, and Mr. Biden’s reactions to their push, appears to be another signal of the increasing tensions between the left and moderate factions of the Democratic Party. Mr. Biden has already been subject to criticism from the left for some of his cabinet picks, even as he explicitly attempts to build a cabinet of racial and gender diversity.
A spokesman for the Biden transition team declined to comment.
From the perspective of environmental progressives, the push to oust Ms. Nichols in the name of environmental justice is of a piece with “the battle for the soul of the party,” said Rich Gold, an energy and environment lobbyist and former senior E.P.A. adviser in the Clinton administration.
During the campaign, the Biden-Harris campaign made environmental justice a core part of their climate plan, recognizing that “environmental policy decisions of the past have failed communities of color.” With Ms. Nichols identified as a candidate for EPA Administrator, California environmental justice communities are now holding the President and Vice-President to their word, asserting that Nichols is incompatible with their campaign promise to ensure that communities burdened by pollution would benefit from a transition to clean energy.
During her tenure as CARB Chair, Nichols has been known for pushing market-based approaches to the climate crisis at the expense of the health and well-being of California’s communities of color, who suffer from some of the deadliest air in the country. The California groups’ letter outlines examples of how Nichols has disregarded environmental justice during her tenure.
“As CARB Chair for well over ten years, Mary Nichols had a unique opportunity and responsibility to address generations of environmental injustice in California, as she was urged by community members time and time again. Regrettably, over the years she instead dismissed petitions of frontline communities aimed at both improving their environmental health and preventing further harms from pollution and the climate crisis,” said Gladys Limón, Executive Director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA). “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 that center the well-being of people, not industries.”
Nichols’ signature cap-and-trade program created a market for big polluters to buy and sell pollution allowances at just $15 per ton. The program is failing to meet its own emissions reduction targets and has increased pollution from the oil and gas industry.
“Mary Nichols’ cap-and-trade program turned working class communities of color into environmental sacrifice zones,” said Miya Yoshitani, Executive Director of Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN). “Nichols’ approach left gaping loopholes for industrial polluters to continue to pollute for profit, and increased pollution burdens on the communities living alongside refineries, oil and gas wells, and dirty power plants. President Biden must learn from California’s failures and appoint an EPA leader who will work with us to lead a just transition away from an economy based on profit and pollution and toward an economy where all of us can thrive.”
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will nominate Michael S. Regan, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, according to three people on the Biden transition team.
Mr. Regan became Mr. Biden’s top choice only in recent days, two people familiar with the selection process said. The front-runner had for several weeks been Mary D. Nichols, California’s air quality regulator, but she faced significant criticism from liberal groups who accused her of not doing enough to address issues of environmental racism in her state.
Mr. Biden also has been under pressure to make his cabinet choices more racially diverse. If confirmed, Mr. Regan is expected to bring a strong focus on racial equity to the agency.
“It signals that the Biden administration is serious about getting the E.P.A. back to its core mission to protect the environment and public health as well as ensure strong, meaningful steps are taken to advance environmental justice issues,” said Brian Buzby, the executive director of the North Carolina Conservation Network, a coalition of environmental groups.