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Blog Post | December 11, 2020

Mary Nichols Is The Wrong EPA Administrator For 2021

2020 Election/TransitionClimate
Mary Nichols Is The Wrong EPA Administrator For 2021

“To the Biden-Harris Transition Team: We write to respectfully express our concerns with the candidacy of Mary Nichols for Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. […] We would like to call to your attention Ms. Nichols’ bleak track record in addressing environmental racism. We encourage you to instead seek other candidates…”

So began a letter sent December 2 from over 70 organizations committed to environmental justice.

Mary Nichols, the reported frontrunner to lead Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency, has been appointed four times to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and is best known for spearheading California’s cap-and-trade program. Since the program began, California’s carbon emissions from its oil and gas industry rose 3.5%. For a state that would have the fifth-largest economy if it were a country, anything but a significant and ongoing decline in carbon emissions is disastrous. 

Unfortunately, even if California’s cap-and-trade program did succeed at its one job, its accomplishments would be overshadowed by the extreme and disproportionate harm done to certain marginalized communities. As the letter outlines, cap-and-trade has increased pollution hotspots in communities of color and low-income communities. This result was a known function of the policy, which allows polluting companies to purchase carbon offsets outside of California while continuing to pollute the “fenceline” communities within the state. Environmental justice, Indigenous, environmental, and forest and scientific groups said Nichols was well aware of the consequences and despite their multiple warnings and letters calling for suspension of the program, continued to implement the ineffective and harmful policy. 

This is part of a trend of Nichols repeatedly disregarding policy recommendations from environmental justice advocates. The Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (EJAC) criticized Nichols’ “lack of understanding of the disproportionate burden of pollution on environmental justice communities” and her dismissive and condescending treatment of them. Black CARB employees earlier this year issued a grievance letter calling out systemic racism and discriminatory treatment within the organization. According to the 70+ signatories of the December 2nd letter sent to the Biden transition team, these ongoing issues “show that she is not fit to lead an EPA that values environmental justice.”

Apparently Nichols was more invested (literally) in oil and gas companies than the communities fighting for her attention; she has been criticized for holding stock in companies including Occidental Petroleum, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Schlumberger, and a pair of major pipeline companies including TransCanada, some of which she publicly fought against while personally investing in their continued existence.

Nichols’ response to this letter was even more disheartening than the claims in the letter. In an interview with climate journalist Eric Holthaus, Nichols all but ignored a question asking her to respond to Gladys Limón, executive director of California Environmental Justice Alliance, who said Nichols has “neglected environmental justice and communities of color.” Nichols insisted that California had the best record of support for disadvantaged communities of any state or country in the world, breezed through a comment admitting she could have done more, then failed to apologize or discuss specifically how she would repair harm she caused. 

It should go without saying that Mary Nichols would be immeasurably better at protecting our environment than the atrocious Andrew Wheeler. But better than Trump’s appointee is a woefully insufficient bar as we speed toward multiple points of no return. Biden, whose embarrassingly simple claim that he will “listen to scientists” is a somehow even lower bar, should instead choose one of the many qualified environmental leaders recommended by activist groups such as the Sunrise Movement, who offered a list of personnel recommendations that included Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, Kevin de Léon, and Heather McTeer Toney. Those who worry about getting “extreme” (read: realistic and necessary) environmental appointees through a stubborn Senate would do well to read Revolving Door Project’s previous work pointing out that Biden doesn’t need the Senate to appoint key leaders and get to work on the multiple crises facing our country.


After decades of ignoring what climate scientists tell us is a dire emergency, there is absolutely no time to waste. The scientific consensus is extremely clear that, after oil and gas companies lied about climate change for over 30 years to increase their profits, it is now necessary to completely phase out the use of fossil fuels as soon as possible. We need a leader who is committed to this goal and embodies environmental justice in every aspect of our transition to a green economy, and that person is not Mary Nichols.

2020 Election/TransitionClimate

More articles by Dorothy Slater

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