On Wednesday at the Governors’ Global Climate Summit, we caught up with Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, a few minutes before she hosted the signing ceremony that culminated the event. As head of CARB since July 2007, Nichols has taken the lead in shaping and implementing California’s ambitious global warming program, signed into law by Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2006.

Nichols’ name is regularly floated as a top contender for the slot of EPA chief in an Obama administration — California senator and Environment and Public Works Chair Barbara Boxer has publicly endorsed her for the position, and she was also one of the top picks in the Grist poll. The New York Times profiled her as a top possibility for the slot. (Nichols was a senior EPA official under Clinton.)

Would she take the job if offered? "I think anybody in my position would be honored to be considered for that job," said Nichols, "but I’ve heard nothing about the process."

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What about the rumors that her boss is being considered for the position of "climate czar" in Obama’s administration? "I think he’d be great at it!" she exclaimed. "He’s one of those people who has a phenomenal ability to master technical issues and bring all of his energy and experience … to whatever he does. But he’s made a commitment to serve out his term as governor of the state of California, so I don’t think he’s going to be taking up any new jobs for a couple years."

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I asked Nichols about comments she made last year to the effect that sector-specific regulations — rather than an economy-wide cap-and-trade program — would account for the bulk of the emission reductions in California:

I think cap and trade is essential. Without the cap, you really don’t have the accounting system that tells you if you’re going to meet your goals. So I didn’t mean to undermine the importance of cap and trade. I think there are going to be significant reductions from other measures — the auto industry standards, the low-carbon fuel standard. There’s just so many tons out there that we’re going to have to squeeze out of the economy. But without the cap, I don’t think you get the buy-in that you need.

What about the question of whether to run a carbon program out of the EPA, using the powers bestowed by the Clean Air Act and clarified by Mass v. EPA, or to implement one via legislation? It’s a subject of much debate and angst amidst stakeholders these days. Nichols proposed a phased implementation:

I think [EPA] ought to move ahead with the rules they have — there’s a lot they can do in terms of monitoring, reporting, designing the cap-and-trade system, developing specific rules. But at the same time, the Clean Air Act does have some weaknesses in terms of how to address multi-state or multiple pollutants. Ultimately I think it’s a bridge to the future, but it’s not the future by itself. We’d like to see a two-part process: we’d like to see the new administration use EPA … and at the same time start work on a piece of legislation.

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Could a climate bill get developed and passed in time for the international climate meetings in Copenhagen in 2009? "I think it’s possible to get a bill next year," says Nichols confidently.

As it happens, despite our top-notch videographic technology and skills, the video of our chat (below) suffers from rather muted audio. But if you’re willing to crank your speakers, here it is: