Forty-Plus Years of Leadership on Climate and Sustainability

In our podcast series, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” I’ve had the pleasure of engaging with a number of real stars from the environmental policy world, asking them not only to comment on relevant policy issues, but also to reflect on their own experiences over the years.  To have done an adequate job of this with my most recent guest, I would have needed an entire day, not just the 30 minutes that we had for a podcast recording.  I say that because my guest was Mary Nichols, whom I first became aware of some 40 years ago in the early-1980s when I was working at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in Berkeley, California, before I moved across the country to enroll in the PhD program in economics at Harvard.  What is astonishing to me is that at the time Mary Nichols already had a prominent and highly successful career in environmental protection and regulation, and she has accomplished so much more in the decades since then!  I hope you will listen to our complete conversation here.

Mary is the former Chair of the California Air Resources Board, having served on the Board under Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (1975–1982 and 2010–18), Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (2007–2010), and Governor Gavin Newsom (2019–2020).  She also served as California’s Secretary for Natural Resources (1999–2003), appointed by Governor Gray Davis.  If that’s not enough, let me note that when not working directly for the State of California, she founded the Los Angles office of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and held the Senate-confirmed position of Assistant Administrator for U.S. EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, in the administration of President Bill Clinton.  Suffice it to say that as an environmental lawyer and leader in government and NGOs over 45 years, she has played a key role in U.S. progress toward healthy air and a clean environment, including having led CARB in crafting and implementing California’s internationally recognized climate action plan.

A graduate of Yale Law School, Mary Nichols was first appointed to CARB by then-Governor Jerry Brown in 1975, and played a key role in the State’s intensive efforts to mitigate urban air pollution, and much later returned to leadership of the Board to help craft and then implement California’s climate action plan, including its well designed cap-and-trade system.

“I have had a lot of good fortune as a lawyer to be in places where there was important work going on and where it was an opportunity to actually make changes happen,” Nichols says. “For me, it was more a question of not wanting to join the corporate establishment, not wanting to do what at that time seemed like the default, which was to go join a big law firm, but to do something that was more aimed at making the world a better place, which is why I had gone to law school in the first place.”

In our conversation, Mary notes that her early work on environmental regulation was focused on clean air, but eventually progressed to climate change policy as well.

“My focus was, and pretty much always has been, on implementation, on taking the statutory enactments laws and using them to actually make something happen in the real world, as we like to say, and climate just seemed to be too esoteric as well as distant. Obviously, my views changed on that and so has those of most of the rest of the world. But it took a while,” she says. “The key was recognizing that when it came to dealing with the causes of climate change, what was actually causing the increasing buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it was essentially the same root causes, the same fundamental issues about how we use energy, how we use electricity, how we move ourselves around.”

“The combustion of fossil fuels is at the heart of it all. It’s obviously more complicated and nuanced than that, but to me, the recognition that if you were doing your job correctly in terms of dealing with air pollution that hurts people’s health and that they can see you were also potentially going to be able to make a real dent in the climate problem as well,” she says.

Nichols argues that the early work on environmental regulation in California, including the path-breaking Global Warming Solutions Act, has had an important impact on national policy (and – I will add – on international climate policy) in the subsequent decades.

“Our goal, of course, was to try to push the US government to adopt meaningful climate legislation. And while we’re still only, I think in some ways, working around the edges of that in terms of having a single comprehensive climate law, the work that we’ve done absolutely has formed the basis for other states to act, as well as help to give some of the backdrop and provide the experience that enabled the federal government to pass President Biden’s very ambitious agenda,” she states.

When I ask Mary where she places herself on the spectrum of hope for climate policy today, she describes herself as an optimist.

“I see that there are signs all over the world of people demanding action to deal with the climate change, which is now no longer theoretical but real, and the massive disruptions in patterns of weather are evidence. It’s not something that requires statistics or a deep knowledge to see what’s happening,” she remarks. “I think politicians are being increasingly pushed to do something meaningful, and it’s not just a matter of mitigation versus adaptation, which used to be the big question. The big argument was, are we going to do things that will protect ourselves against climate change versus trying to stop it. We have to be doing both, and I think there’s a lot of interest in doing that, certainly among the larger financial institutions in all of the countries and companies that do business around the globe.”

For this and much, much more, I encourage you to listen to this 46th episode of the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


A Golden Opportunity to Please Conservatives and Liberals Alike

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a golden opportunity to opt for a smart, low-cost approach to fulfilling its mandate under a Supreme Court decision to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions linked with global climate change.

Such an approach would provide maximum compliance flexibility to private industry while meeting mandated emission reduction targets, would achieve these goals at the lowest possible cost, would work through the market rather than against it, would be consistent with the Obama Administration’s pragmatic approach to environmental regulation, and ought to receive broad political support, including from conservatives, who presumably want to minimize the cost burden of any policy on businesses and consumers.

Background and Context

By now, it is well known that the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court (5-4) decision in Massachusetts v. EPA found that EPA has the authority to regulate GHGs under the existing provisions of the Clean Air Act (CAA). This, combined with EPA’s “endangerment finding” in 2009 that GHGs threaten public health and the environment, led first in January, 2011, to new motor vehicle fuel efficiency standards, and soon will lead to regulations affecting new and modified stationary sources of emissions (under Section 111b of the CAA) via so-called New Source Performance Standards, and regulations for existing stationary sources (under Section 111d).

In quantitative terms, this last set of regulations – for existing stationary sources – will be key, and by far the most important affected sector will be electricity generation, which accounts for fully 40 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions (and a third of national GHG emissions). Within this sector, coal-fired power plants will be the most drastically affected.

EPA could, in principle, promulgate a regulatory approach that incorporates compliance flexibility, such as through various types of credit, offset, or cap-and-trade mechanisms. It could do this, but may it do so under the legal authority of the Clean Air Act?

Call the Lawyers!

Over the past year, there has been a considerable amount of discussion and no small degree of hand-wringing over whether the relevant parts of the Clean Air Act authorize the use of such flexibility mechanisms. In the midst of this, a new report from Resources for the Future by Gregory Wannier (Columbia Law School) and others makes a compelling, but nuanced case in the affirmative. (See “Prevailing Academic View on Compliance Flexibility under §111 of the Clean Air Act”).

Their conclusion, in a nutshell: “EPA has the tools under §111 of the CAA to implement relatively flexible and efficient GHG regulation. The agency could use a range of compliance flexibility options itself, or facilitate state implementation plans that adopt such measures at the state or regional level.” Included are the market-based, economic-incentive instruments mentioned above.

We should take note, by the way, that Section 111d gives states considerable latitude when choosing their actions to follow EPA guidelines, an approach that is consistent with conservatives’ promotion of the primacy of state authorities in tailoring rules for individual state-by-state circumstances.

Now, for Some Economics

Even if the EPA has the legal authority to adopt a progressive, market-based approach to fulfilling this regulatory mandate, would it really make sense to do this? That is, what would be the consequences of adopting a flexible approach, compared with a conventional, inflexible regulatory scheme? Key issues include the implications for environmental performance, aggregate social cost, and consumer impacts via electricity prices.

Another new study, this one by Dallas Burtraw, Anthony Paul, and Matt Woerman (all at RFF), provides the analysis that is needed, using RFF’s well-regarded Haiku model of the U.S. electricity market, to examine the effect of alternative CAA policies on investment and operation of the nation’s electricity system over a 25-year time horizon in 21 interlinked regions. (See: “Retail Electricity Price Savings from Compliance Flexibility in GHG Standards for Stationary Sources”)

Four scenarios which would achieve the same environmental benefits are examined:

(1) a conventional approach in which the operating efficiency of individual coal-fired power plants would be regulated (labeled an “inflexible performance standard”).

(2) a “flexible performance standard,” under which plants that exceeded the standard could transfer a credit (in exchange for payment) to plants that found it more difficult to achieve the standard. The researchers call these “generation efficiency credit offsets.”

(3) cap-and-trade with auctioned CO2 emission allowances, where the revenue generated for government simply displaces the need for other revenue sources on a one-for-one basis (that is, there is no assumption of a double-dividend through increased efficiency of the tax code).

(4) cap-and-trade with free allocation of allowances to Local Distribution Companies (LDCs), which are regulated and hence assumed to pass the benefits of the free allocation on to consumers.

The results are striking. In terms of aggregate social costs, the inflexible standard would bring with it total costs of about $5 billion per year, whereas – at the other extreme – cap-and-trade with free allocation would involve total costs of only $500 million annually, a 90 percent cost savings!

If – despite its legal authority – EPA believes it is politically unable to adopt a cap-and-trade approach (because of last year’s successful tarnishing of that phrase by Congressional conservatives), then it could opt for a second-best approach, the “flexible-performance standard,” above, which would involve total annual costs of about $1.4 billion, still a 70 percent cost savings compared with the conventional, inflexible standard.

Of course, political consideration of such policy alternatives is more frequently driven by estimates of consumer impacts than by overall social costs (which include consumer costs, industry costs, and costs to government). Here, the analysis is also striking. Consumer costs – due to higher electricity prices – under the inflexible standard would increase by 7 percent, while consumer costs under the flexible performance standard would increase by less than 2 percent. With the cap-and-trade regime with free allowances, consumer costs would actually fall by nearly 1 percent, due to lower electricity prices. [For complete numerical results with all of the scenarios, see the RFF discussion paper.]

The Bottom Line

Clearly, much is to be gained – and virtually nothing lost – by adopting a more flexible approach to meeting a court-ordered mandate that, one way or another, will have a regulation promulgated and eventually finalized. It would be foolish to turn away from a potential 90 percent cost savings for the country’s economy, particularly when the same approach yields lower electricity prices for consumers. All this, while meeting national obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s too soon to forget that a year ago the Senate abandoned its attempt to pass climate legislation that would limit CO2 emissions. In the process, conservative Republicans dubbed cap-and-tradecap-and-tax.’’ But, as I’ve said before, regardless of what they think about climate change, conservatives should resist demonizing market-based approaches to environmental protection and reverting to pre-1980s thinking that saddled business and consumers with needless costs.

Market-based approaches to environmental protection should be lauded, not condemned, by political leaders, no matter what their party affiliation. Otherwise, there will be severe and perverse long-term consequences for the economy, for business, and for consumers.


Good News from the Regulatory Front

As each day passes, the upcoming November 2012 general elections produce new stories about potential Republican candidates for President, as well as stories about President Obama’s anticipated re-election campaign.  At the same time, the 2012 elections are already affecting Congressional debates, where each side seems increasingly interested in taking symbolic actions and scoring political points that can play to its constituencies among the electorate, rather than working earnestly on the country’s business.

The new Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives decry the “fact” that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to promulgate “job-killing regulations” for made-up non-problems.  And Democrats in the Congress – not to mention the Administration – are eager to talk about “win-win” policies that will produce “clean energy jobs” and protect Americans from the evils of imported oil and gas.

Neither side seems willing to admit that environmental regulations bring both good news – a cleaner environment – and bad news – costs of compliance that affect not only businesses but consumers as well.  Sometimes the cost-side of proposed regulations dominates.  Those regulatory moves are – from an economic perspective – fundamentally unwise, since they make society worse off.  In other cases, the benefits of a proposed regulation more than justify the costs that will be incurred.  Such regulations are – to use a word now favored by President Obama –  a wise investment.  They make society better off.  Failure to take action on such opportunities is imprudent, if not irresponsible.  Just such an opportunity now presents itself with EPA’s Clean Air Transport Rule.

In an op-ed that appeared on April 25, 2011, in The Huffington Post (click here for link to the original op-ed), Richard Schmalensee and I assess this opportunity.  Rather than summarize (or expand on) our op-ed, I simply re-produce it below as it was published by The Huffington Post, with some hyperlinks added for interested readers.

For anyone who is not familiar with my co-author, Richard Schmalensee, please note that he is the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Economics and Management at MIT, where he served as the Dean of the Sloan School of Management from 1998 to 2007.  Also, he served as a Member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers in the George H. W. Bush administration from 1989 to 1991.  By the way, in previous blog posts, I’ve featured other op-eds that Dick and I have written in The Huffington Post (“Renewable Irony”) and The Boston Globe (“Beware of Scorched-Earth Strategies in Climate Debates”).


An Opportunity for Timely Action:  EPA’s Transport Rule Passes the Test

by Richard Schmalensee and Robert Stavins

The Huffington Post, April 25, 2011

At a time when EPA regulations are under harsh attack, one new environmental regulation – at least – stands out as an impressive winner for the country.  Studies of the soon-to-be-finalized Clean Air Transport Rule have consistently found that the benefits created by the rule would far outweigh its costs.  By reducing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants in 31 states in the East and Midwest, the Transport Rule will create substantial benefits through lower incidence of respiratory and heart disease, improved visibility, enhanced agricultural and forestry yields, improved ecosystem services, and other environmental amenities.  According to EPA, these benefits will be 25 to 130 times greater than the associated costs.  We document this in our new report, “A Guide to Economic and Policy Analysis of EPA’s Transport Rule,” which was commissioned by the Exelon Corporation.

Despite the benefits offered by the Transport Rule, some argue that it – and other EPA regulations – will stifle economic growth and threaten the reliability of our electric power system.  However, a careful look at the evidence reveals that the Transport Rule is unlikely to create such risks.  Analyses of the Transport Rule have found that it need not lead to significant plant retirements.   Robust regulatory and market mechanisms ensure that the nation can meet emission targets while reliably meeting customer demand.

While compliance with the Transport Rule would – in some cases – require installation of new pollution control equipment, the capital expenditures required would comprise a small fraction of aggregate capital spending by the power industry.  In fact, because of the Transport Rule’s unique legal circumstances, in which the Courts have mandated that EPA replace a stringent predecessor, utilities have already begun to make pollution control investments needed to comply with the Transport Rule.

The Rule’s timing can also contribute to lowering its cost and supporting other policy goals.  Installation of the pollution control technologies needed to comply with the Rule could increase short-term employment.  Although the longer term job impacts are less clear, these short-term employment effects would complement other policy initiatives aimed at supporting the nation’s economic recovery.

EPA analysis estimates modest impacts on regional electricity rates, but reductions in health care expenditures could partially or fully offset these effects.  Expanded supplies of low-cost natural gas can also help lower the Transport Rule’s cost by providing a less costly substitute for power generated from coal.

Most importantly, actions taken to reduce emissions would create substantial health benefits.  Tens of thousands of premature deaths would be eliminated annually, as would millions of non-fatal respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.  A diverse set of studies find that these health improvements will create $20 to over $300 billion in benefits annually.  And, while the Transport Rule is designed to reduce the impact of upwind emissions on downwind states, upwind states would also receive substantial health benefits from the cleaner air brought about by the Rule.  These upwind states have much to gain, because states with the highest emissions from coal-fired power plants are also among those with the greatest premature mortality rates from these emissions.

Along with these health benefits, the largest shares of short-term improvements in employment and regional economies are likely to accrue to the regions that are most dependent on coal-fired power, as they invest in new pollution control equipment.  Thus, while designed to help regions downwind of coal-fired power plants, the Transport Rule also offers substantial benefits to upwind states.

As the U.S. economy emerges from its worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s and faces an increasingly competitive global marketplace, regulation such as the Transport Rule that creates positive net benefits and allows industry flexibility in creating public goods can complement strategies intended to foster economic growth.  Such regulations are best identified by careful analyses to ensure that benefits truly exceed costs and avoid unfair impacts on particular groups or sectors.  The Transport Rule has undergone a series of such thorough assessments, and the results consistently indicate that it would create benefits that far exceed its costs.  Failure to take timely action on this opportunity would seem to be imprudent, if not irresponsible.


*Richard Schmalensee is the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Economics and Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a fellow of the Econometric Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  He served as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers with primary responsibility for environmental and energy policy from 1989 through 1991.  Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, a university fellow of Resources for the Future, a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a fellow of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.  He served as chairman of the EPA’s Environmental Economics Advisory Committee from 1997 through 2002.  Their report, “A Guide to Economic and Policy Analysis of EPA’s Transport Rule,” which was commissioned by the Exelon Corporation, can be downloaded at: