with Alexandra Ellerbeck

One of the top contenders to be Joe Biden's administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency is in the middle of the tug of war between those who want her to get the job and those who don't. 

Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board, is widely admired among many environmentalists for countering the rollback of climate regulations coming out of Washington under President Trump. But she has detractors who see a lackluster record regarding poor and minority communities in the Golden State. 

The job of the next administration's environmental enforcer, who will take over a demoralized agency that will quickly shift gears toward new rulemaking that tackles climate change, may prove to be one of the most challenging in Biden's Cabinet.

Others being discussed for the job in addition to Nichols include Collin O'Mara, the president of the National Wildlife Federation who ran the natural resources department in Biden's home state of Delaware, and Heather McTeer Toney, who ran the agency's Southeast office under President Barack Obama.

Nichols allies say like the 75-year-old California official for the decades of experience she would bring to the EPA.

The latest politician to throw their weight behind Nichols is Arnold Schwarzenegger. California's former Republican governor crossed party lines in 2007 when he picked Nichols to chair the California Air Resources Board, the clean-air agency tasked with cleaning up smoggy skies in Los Angeles and other cities.

“She’s a big, big star,” Schwarzenegger told radio host and Washington Post contributing columnist Hugh Hewitt last week. “I hope that she gets to be the head of the EPA.”

California's cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions, which Nichols helped put in place in 2013, is looked to both in the rest of the United States and abroad as an answer to climate change. Under the program, California hit its emissions reduction goal for 2020 ahead of schedule. She has experience working in Washington, too, having run the EPA's air and radiation office under President Bill Clinton. 

More recently, Nichols hammered out a secret deal with four major automakers to maintain tailpipe emissions standards more stringent than those the Trump administration locked in. The move undercut one of the EPA's most aggressive rollbacks of climate regulation while cementing her reputation as a regulator who can negotiate with big businesses. 

“Mary Nichols is brilliant,” Schwarzenegger said. “I think she would really be great and she will be able to be a person that will work with the car companies and work with the fossil fuel companies, and to do it in a sensible way.”

In another significant endorsement, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer has asked the Biden transition team to pick Nichols. The New York Democrat is a proponent of a trade-in program to spur drivers to buy electric and other low-emissions vehicles.

But more than 70 advocacy organizations are urging Biden not to pick Nichols, alleging she has a poor record on environmental justice. 

In a harshly worded letter sent to the Biden transition team last week, Greenpeace USA, Friends of the Earth and other groups say that Nichols has not prioritized the needs of the low-income communities that often bear the brunt of pollution. 

At the heart of their criticism is the agency's carbon trading program itself, which can have the unintended effect of concentrating pollution in neighborhoods where it is the cheapest to operate. 

“As warned by environmental justice advocates, cap and trade has increased pollution hotspots for communities of color in California, exacerbating pollution health and safety harms,” the groups wrote. 

Power plays

NOAA is expected to increase its profile after Biden takes office.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expected to play a defining role in shaping Biden's climate agenda, a rise in prominence for the agency that went without a Senate-confirmed administrator for an entire presidential term under the Trump administration, our colleagues Andrew Freedman and Jason Samenow report. 

The Post obtained a Biden transition team memo that listed as top priorities for the agency rebuilding public trust and “reestablishing the central role of climate change in everything NOAA does.” The Trump administration has sparked controversy recently with its appointment of two scientists who question the seriousness of climate change to key posts at NOAA.

As the Biden team considers candidates to lead the agency, former officials and environmental advocates have highlighted some top contenders for the role:

  • Monica Medina, who held high-profile leadership positions in NOAA under the Clinton and Obama administrations, is considered a leading candidate. Medina serves as founder and publisher of the environmental newsletter Our Daily Planet and is married to incoming White House chief of staff Ronald A. Klain.
  • Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia and past president of the American Meteorological Society, is considered another top contender. If nominated and confirmed, he would be NOAA’s first Black administrator.
  • The transition team has contacted Everette Joseph, director of the National Center of Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., who is also Black and taught at Howard University, Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris’s alma mater.
  • Also in mix are Margaret Leinen, who directs the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, who founded the Urban Ocean Lab and is the co-host of the climate change podcast “How to Save a Planet” on Gimlet. Johnson would also be the first Black administrator.
The Biden administration picked Xavier Becerra to head the Department of Health and Human Services.

The choice of Becerra, who served as a member of Congress for 24 years before becoming California's attorney general, is an unorthodox selection for the HHS post, our colleague Amy Goldstein reports. 

But Becerra has been one of the most outspoken attorneys general in recent years, challenging the Trump administration in court more than 100 times, including in cases related to the environment, health and immigration. 

Becerra has played a central role in combating the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks and defending California’s authority to adopt its own environmental standards. In 2018, he established a Bureau of Environmental Justice within California's Department of Justice focused on protecting communities that faced disproportionate public health hazards because of pollution.

There are big holes in Ryan Zinke's text message records from his time as interior secretary.

A recent agency court filing sparked allegations that Zinke had run afoul of federal record-keeping requirements after a series of mistakes appeared to result in large swaths of his communications going missing, E&E News reports. The court filing, which came in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Center for Biological Diversity, details how the agency mistakenly wiped the information on one of Zinke’s phones. In another instance, the former head of the Interior Department appears to have given the agency the wrong passcode.

"This is a real comedy of errors — except it's not very funny," Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, told E&E News.  "It sounds like the department and the secretary made just about every mistake you could think of."

Denmark became the first major oil-producing nation to set a deadline to end extraction.

The European Union’s top oil producer committed Friday to ending new licenses for oil and gas extraction in the North Sea and phasing out all extraction by 2050, our colleagues Florian Elabdi, Rick Noack and Steven Mufson report. Denmark was under increasing pressure as the E.U. aims to become carbon neutral within the next three decades.

“The decision was applauded by some environmental activists, with Greenpeace celebrating it as a ‘watershed moment,’ although other groups had hoped for a faster timeline,” Elabdi, Noack and Mufson report. Greta Thunberg, the climate activist from nearby Sweden, was more critical of the announcement.

Correction: The original version of this newsletter inaccurately said Greta Thunberg praised Denmark's pledge to end oil extraction by 2050. She was actually critical of the deadline for not being soon enough.

Nissan will no longer support Trump in emissions fight with California.

The automaker announced on Friday that it was pulling out of the Trump administration’s lawsuit challenging California’s ability to set its own emissions and gas-mileage standards, the Associated Press reports

“We are confident that productive conversations among the auto industry, the Biden administration and California can deliver a common-sense set of national standards that increases efficiency and meets the needs of all American drivers,” the automaker said in a statement shared with the media. General Motors pulled its support in the Trump administration's legal fight last month.

California campgrounds and lodgings closed in California under new coronavirus restrictions.

Campgrounds and lodgings at national and state parks in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley will close following California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) regional stay-at-home order, the Los Angeles Times reports. The order, which went into effect late Sunday, is tied to a region’s ICU capacity.

Officials have sought to strike a balance between allowing for outdoor recreation — which is considered important for physical and mental health — and discouraging people from traveling or using shared facilities. Although beaches and trails will remain open under the order, officials have been adamant that residents should not meet up with people outside their household.

Yosemite National Park and Death Valley National Park will remain open for day use, even as their campgrounds and hotels close. 

Extra mileage

Stunning vistas reveal the passage of millions of years in Oregon.

Prehistoric Oregon was once lush with tropical fruits and exotic animals. “Today, the remains of those now-extinct animals — and the plants that sheltered and fed them — can be found scattered about the startlingly beautiful landscapes of the 14,000-acre John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in eastern Oregon, about a five-hour drive east of Portland,” Julia Duin writes for The Post's travel section.