By Debra Kahn, POLITICO PRO
December 9, 2020
SAN FRANCISCO — California Gov. Gavin Newsom will announce Wednesday that he is appointing longtime state regulator Liane Randolph as the next chair of the Air Resources Board, an agency that has regularly shaped the U.S. manufacturing landscape through strict environmental requirements.
Randolph, 55, will replace outgoing California Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols, who is being considered by President-elect Joe Biden as a possible U.S. EPA administrator.
Newsom put his stamp on the agency for the first time with four appointments in addition to Randolph, based on details provided to POLITICO by his administration. The moves come weeks after the governor charged CARB with phasing out new internal-combustion passenger vehicles by 2035.
The Air Resources Board is an outsized force within California government and has for years remained a check on national policies, driven by a state that is aggressive on combating climate change. The board has set the mark for vehicle efficiency, forcing car manufacturers to adopt its strict emissions limits through the sheer force of the California marketplace and, before President Donald Trump, cooperation with past administrations.
Randolph is an attorney who has served since 2015 on the Public Utilities Commission, the state's top regulatory agency on utility matters that in recent years has dealt with Pacific Gas & Electric, the beleaguered company that went bankrupt after its wires sparked the state's deadliest fire in late 2018.
She will become the first African American chair of CARB, a significant move after Black staff this fall alleged that the agency has problems of systemic racism. Some Black lawmakers and environmental justice advocates have suggested that the agency has focused too much on high-priced solutions such as electric cars and too little on reducing pollution that affects low-income neighborhoods and regions.
Randolph will take over at CARB under much calmer conditions than Nichols faced during the Trump administration, which launched attacks against the agency's authority to regulate greenhouse gases from motor vehicles as well as its ability to sign climate agreements with foreign governments.
It marks the start of a new era for the air board, which has been led by Nichols for 13 consecutive years through the past three California governors. Nichols also led CARB during former Gov. Jerry Brown's first stint as governor in the 1970s and 1980s.
Randolph will be responsible for a host of existing and new rules aimed at getting conventional pollutants under control and reducing greenhouse gas levels to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. She will be charged with implementing Newsom's September executive order to phase out new internal-combustion passenger vehicles by 2035 and deciding how big a role the state's cap-and-trade program should play in future emissions reductions.
Newsom said she would champion climate as well as conventional air policies, in a statement provided to POLITICO.
“Cleaner air is essential for California’s families and Liane Randolph is the kind of bold, innovative leader that will lead in our fight against climate change with equity and all California’s communities at heart,” he said. “By committing to achieving carbon neutrality and a clean economy, my administration is fighting for a healthier and more vibrant future for our families and our economy.”
Randolph oversaw a wide range of proceedings at the PUC, including utilities' purchases of renewable energy, adaptation to climate change, electricity supply reliability and how to manage the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility that ruptured in 2015.
Sen. Henry Stern (D-Malibu), who represents the Los Angeles neighborhood surrounding the gas leak, said she was thorough and detail-oriented, getting a third-party analysis of future demand for the facility instead of relying on the testimony of its owner, SoCalGas.
"I'm the representative for the area, so I want her to come out with fire and brimstone and shut this thing down all the way," Stern said. "She didn't give into my political pressure, per se, but she was always technically solid and responsive."
In addition to serving at the PUC, Randolph also worked at the Natural Resources Agency under Brown, where she was deputy secretary and chief counsel from 2011-14. While there, she worked with the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources when it was found to have allowed oil companies to inject extraction wastewater into protected aquifers.
Randolph was appointed in 2003 by Gov. Gray Davis to chair the Fair Political Practices Commission, then led the political watchdog agency for four years while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in office following Davis' recall. After her FPPC chairmanship, she worked for the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, where she advised clients like AT&T and Chevron on compliance with lobbying rules, according to a 2009 Sacramento Business Journal article.
The head of Consumer Watchdog, a group that has pushed Brown and Newsom to rein in oil production, pointed to her time in the private sector and advising DOGGR and said she might face opposition in her confirmation hearing in the state Senate. The group alleged in a 2016 report that Randolph was involved in the dismissal of two Brown administration officials who raised concerns about the wastewater injections.
"This is the highest profile environmental protection position in America outside of the EPA; it deserves an environmentalist in it," Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court said in an email. "Liane Randolph is not an environmentalist."
Another PUC commissioner appointed by Brown, Martha Guzman Aceves, had been seen as a front-runner for the job until recently, as had current CARB board member and former Assemblymember Hector De La Torre.
Environmental justice groups had advocated for Guzman Aceves and against De La Torre, whom they saw as too supportive of market-based pollution controls. Meanwhile, Black lawmakers have been calling for more representation on the board, which currently has no Black leaders among its 14 members and two lawmakers in non-voting positions.
Stern said Randolph's selection might be a sign that Newsom wants to engage more directly with the agency than he has under Nichols.
"Despite the protests and whatever discontent folks have with Mary, she's been masterful over the years in managing all the different constituencies," he said. "If they go with a technical expert and level-headed expert like her [Randolph], it's going to force the governor to own the politics more directly."
Newsom also filled the board's four other seats that were set to become vacant at the end of the year:
— Environmental lawyer Gideon Kracov will replace retiring South Coast Air Quality Management District member Judy Mitchell
— Belmont city council member Davina Hurt will replace John Gioia, who represents the Bay Area Air Quality Management District
— Tania Pacheco-Werner, co-assistant director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at California State University, Fresno will replace Alex Sherriffs as the representative from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District
— University of California San Francisco professor John Balmes, who has held the spot on the board reserved for a physician since 2008, was reappointed.