Air Resources Board Chair: Who Is Mary Nichols?

Thursday, June 14, 2012
Mary Nichols

Mary D. Nichols, the two-time chair of the Air Resources Board, was born in Minneapolis, Minn., and grew up in Ithaca, N.Y. Her father was a professor at Cornell University and mayor of Ithaca. As a youth Nichols marched in protest against public school air-raid drills, worked with the American Friends Service Committee on peace issues and spent the Civil Rights summer of 1964 with fellow Cornell students helping to register voters in Fayette County, Tenn. Shortly after graduating from Cornell with a bachelor of arts degree in 1966, she became one of the first female journalists hired at the Wall Street Journal.

After a brief stint with the Manhattan district attorney’s office running an experimental program for youthful offenders, she returned to school and graduated with a law degree from Yale. After graduating from Yale in 1971,  she moved to Los Angeles with her husband, John Daum, who is a lawyer for ExxonMobil.

In Los Angeles, she went to work for the Center for Law in the Public Interest, a group just beginning to get involved with environmental cases. According to Nichols, staff lawyers already had snapped up the prime assignments of nuclear power plants, coastal issues and land use. “Nobody wanted to tackle air pollution so I became the air pollution specialist.” She became involved in some of the first cases regarding the just-passed federal Clean Air Act before segueing to government work. She worked there until 1974.

Nichols went to work for the state of California as Secretary of Environmental Affairs and the Chair of the Air Resources Board, 1974-78, and briefly served as Los Angeles chief assistant city attorney in charge of the civil branch, 1978-79, before returning to her previous position for the state, 1979-1983. After Brown left office, she did some volunteer work for the Sierra Club and free-lance writing,  taught environmental law at the University of Southern California and served as president of the League of Conservation Voters.

Nichols had a brief stint as campaign manager for Mayor Tom Bradley in his 1986 quest for the governorship but left after criticism that she lacked experience for the job. She was director of People for the American Way, 1987-1988.  In 1989, Nichols opened the Los Angeles office of the Natural Resources Defense Council. She worked for the federal Environmental Protection Agency from 1993-1997, becoming assistant administrator for the Air and Radiation program in the Clinton Administration. Nichols was California Secretary for Resources under Governor Gray Davis from 1999-2003 before taking a position as director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment.

Governor Schwarzenegger appointed her chairman of the Air Resources Board in 2007 and Governor Brown re-appointed her on January 5, 2011, but in the interim Nichols received heavy criticism for her stock holdings. Her investments included shares in Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, BP PLC, a Bermuda shipping company that transports crude oil and the world's largest coal company, Peabody Energy Corp, according to the Associated Press. "Five of the investments, including the Chevron stock, are worth as much as $1 million, according to a financial disclosure report Nichols filed recently with the state Fair Political Practices Commission."

After the news media reported Nichols’ stock holdings, she announced that she would put her oil stocks in a trust.

-Ken Broder

To Learn More:

Mary D. Nichols Bio (Official CARB website)

Bent on Clearing the Air (Los Angeles Times)

Professor-in-Residence (UCLA School of Law)

Clueless Mary Nichols (Consumer Watchdog)

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