Dean’s Speaker Series: Influential environmental regulator Mary Nichols on enforcing policy and uncovering ‘Dieselgate’

Ann Harrison and Mary Nichols
Dean Ann Harrison interviewing Mary Nichols in Spieker Forum.

Mary Nichols, former chair of the California Air Resources Board, has been described as “the most influential environmental regulator in history.” Nichols, who currently serves with Jim Farley, CEO of Ford Motor Company, as co-chair of the Coalition for Reimagined Mobility, and is vice chair of the California-China Climate Institute with California’s former Governor Jerry Brown, joined us for a recent Dean’s Speaker Series talk.

Speaking with Dean Ann Harrison, Nichols gave a first-person account of “Dieselgate,” the 2015 Volkswagen emissions scandal, and her role working with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to hold Volkswagen accountable for violating the Clean Air Act. (Volkswagen had equipped 590,000 vehicles with “defeat devices” or computer software designed to cheat on federal emissions tests.)

Nichols said the problem was first uncovered in Europe, where regulators measuring air quality weren’t seeing the benefits from Volkswagen’s new clean vehicles.

“California started testing….then we actually went and bought cars and put them on dynamometers with equipment, and saw how they were operating during the test, and figured out what was going on.”

Then, she said, a mid-level engineer working on the government affairs team at Volkswagen confessed to one of Nichols’ staff members about what was happening with the vehicles.

Enforcement action followed, after they brought the information to the federal government. “This one was ours to begin with, but then they took it up, and together we pursued the court actions, which eventually resulted in a settlement.” Watch the complete DSS talk here: