03/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

California's Air Chief Is Now The Accidental Car Czar

One of the wrinkles in the automakers' federal bailout was that many in Congress and the American public didn't seem to trust the automakers to handle taxpayers' money all that well. In the wake of a very confusing $700 billion bailout of the financial industry, people clamored for someone to watch over the dispersal of federal funds -- a "car czar."

Among car czar candidates put forth by politicians and television pundits were Paul Volcker, Lee Iacocca and Jack Welch. But now that all is said and done, none of them have the authority over the auto industry that Mary D. Nichols has:

Thanks to President Obama's decision to allow states to impose their own emissions standards, the most powerful person in the industry is a former Clinton appointee to the Environmental Protection Agency: Mary D. Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board.

On Monday, President Obama directed federal officials to approve requests by California and other states to impose their own fuel-efficiency and emissions standards.

Since no automobile company will build one car for California and another for the rest of the country, the standard set by California and its 13 or so allies will become the standard for the whole country.