Mary Nichols, head of California’s powerful Air Resources Board, says she doesn’t believe unattributed news reports that she or Lisa Jackson, former commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, are (or are not) front-runners to be President-elect Obama’s nominee to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“I don’t believe either of those things, and I don’t think you should either,” she said in a phone interview from her kitchen Friday morning.

Nichols repeated that she would be honored to play a role in the Obama administration on environmental and energy issues. She said she could not comment on whether she has talked to transition team officials or other staff. Obama spokesmen were mum too, despite an increasing drum roll of published and online reports that Jackson is now the lead candidate.

“We do not comment on appointments before they are made, or on the appointment process,” said a transition team press officer.

Nichols laughed when asked about a report earlier this week in E&E News that her candidacy was nixed by nervous Obama officials after another powerful California Democrat, Henry Waxman, won the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“If I had to be sacrificed in order for Congressman Waxman to be head of that committee… then that is a sacrifice that is truly in the national interest…I believe that that is truly in the national interest, for him to be there.”

She added, “I think that any new administration has to consider a number of things, including geographic diversity. That said, as of now, I haven’t seen any signs that California is over-represented” in the incoming Obama administration

Jackson, a Princeton-trained chemical engineer who worked at U.S. EPA for several years, is on the three-person team in charge of selecting the agency’s possible new administrator. As part of that team she has met with agency staff and others to try to figure out what needs to be done once Obama takes office.

Nichols, an Ivy League lawyer, was an assistant administrator at U.S. EPA for four years in the 1990s, and has been in close contact with agency officials over California’s unsuccessful request for a waiver to implement its greenhouse gas tailpipe legislation, federal soot and ozone regulations, and other pollution policies.

She described EPA career staff as “suppressed, marginalized…and in some cases demoralized” because they felt scientific and other professional findings had been ignored by the White House under Bush and current administrator Johnson. But she said even though many advocacy groups and officials want instant reversal of Bush era environmental decisions, it would take time.

“Certainly the administrator herself or himself is legally required to follow a process, and she or he cannot just go in and say “hmm, I think I’ll sign the California waiver today.”

Nonetheless, she said meaningful climate change policy should be doable within months, not years, and should be implemented in conjunction with well-designed cap and trade legislation from Congress.

Nichols, who emphasized that “I have a wonderful job right now,” is pretty busy. As chairman of California’s air board, she is negotiating the final touches on both the massive plan that will actually implement the state’s landmark global warming legislation, and a groundbreaking dirty truck replacement regulation. The board is expected to approve both measures next week, despite vocal objections from some environmental justice activists and businesses.

Janet Wilson is a veteran journalist based in southern California, who reported on air quality and other environmental issues for the Los Angeles Times. She can be reached at janetwilson66 AT gmail DOT com.