CEQA Roundup: Muscle-flexing in Sacramento complicates reform debate

150 150 Justin Ewers

Coal-fire power plants have become a focus of the CEQA debate. (Photo Credit: Jeffrey Beall)

It was a week of grand political gestures in the debate over updating the California Environmental Quality Act, the state’s 40-year-old environmental law. And as always in Sacramento, the more heated the rhetoric, the more elusive the policy solution.

The would-be reformers of the CEQA Working Group kicked things off on Monday by asking local officials to sign an open letter to the Governor and Legislature supporting “meaningful CEQA reform.” The letter acknowledges the importance of CEQA, but makes the case that the law is costing too many local governments “a lot of time and a lot of money—which could be spent on actual environmental mitigation or for some other local purpose.”

Statewide labor and environmental groups responded the next day by taking to the Capitol steps to release a new report showing CEQA hasn’t been so bad for the state’s economy. The study, by the Labor Management Cooperation Trust, finds that since CEQA became law in 1970, California’s manufacturing output, construction activity, per-capita GDP, and housing all grew “as fast or faster than the other 49 states.” (Even if the law hasn’t stopped the state’s growth, three former California governors supporting efforts to update CEQA recently argued that it has still slowed things down—with major transportation projects in California now taking an average of 17 years.)

“CEQA is proof positive that environmental protection works,” Sen. Noreen Evans, author of two environmentally friendly CEQA bills, said from the Capitol steps. Evans was joined by a lineup of some of the state’s biggest labor and environmental groups, who took turns defending the law. Robbie Hunter, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, was the most vociferous, calling CEQA reform “a blind run at deregulation motivated by the wolves of business.”

Implications for the debate

With the temperature going up in Sacramento, political observers pondered its impact on the upcoming policy debate. John Myers, a respected Sacramento political reporter, put it best in a tweet during the labor presser—pointing out that five speakers into the event, “none have actually said whether all changes are [a] non-starter, or just some proposals.”

So, just to review, what does everybody want?

  • Statewide labor groups: After its press conference, the California Labor Federation released a statement clarifying its position: “The coalition defending CEQA sent a clear message today—If corporate special interests continue to push for weakening our environmental laws, those efforts would be met with stiff opposition.”
  • Environmentalists and urban developers: While some environmental leaders took to the Capitol steps this week, many environmentalists and urban development groups have rallied behind Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s proposals in SB 731, which focuses mostly on speeding up the process for infill development. (Some labor leaders, it’s worth noting, said only a few weeks ago that they would support Steinberg’s efforts to find middle ground, as well.)
  • Business and local government groups: Representatives from the reform coalition seemed to indicate this week that they would like to see changes to CEQA that go further than Steinberg’s bill—though they’ve also called the legislation a “positive first step.” “What we want is certainty,” Kathy Fairbanks of the CEQA Working Group said this week. “So that if a project meets state and federal and local guidelines, it can’t get sued after the fact and the rug pulled out from under the project.”

Back to you, policymakers

Woe be to the lawmakers who must navigate this political maze. “I’m getting it from both ends,” Sen. Steinberg acknowledged this week to George Skelton in the Los Angeles Times. “But people have to decide whether they want to fix the problem or be partisan warriors.”

Skelton is the first to get the views of Sen. Jerry Hill, the new chair of the Senate’s environmental quality committee, on where rank-and-file Democrats stand on CEQA. “We recognize there’s a problem,” Hill says. “Something should be done.”

But what, exactly? “There are so many interests that utilize CEQA for so many reasons,” Hill says, alluding to abuses of CEQA by businesses looking to hurt competitors and labor unions to get concessions from developers. “When something is used for other than its purpose, it dilutes its effectiveness for that purpose. We want to make it work more effectively and more timely, so as not to be a hindrance to [development] projects. We have to address these issues and not hide from them.”

Meanwhile, outside Sacramento…

With lawmakers pondering their next steps, CEQA is getting a closer look outside Sacramento. The economic impact report released by labor groups this week highlighted three case studies showing how CEQA has been a vital tool in protecting the state’s environment:

  • Ending the use of coal-fired power plants: The report credits the CEQA review process for helping environmentalists push utilities away from using coal-fired power plants in California. While much of the rest of the country continued to rely on coal in the 1980s, CEQA environmental reviews convinced California utilities to rely more on natural gas.
  • “Greening” the ports: CEQA suits brought by community groups near the Port of Long Beach in the 1990s led to a settlement with the port that resulted in the construction of the first green shipping container terminal in the world, which allows ships to “plug in” to shoreside power, massively reducing the air pollution created by running their engines.
  • Discouraging use of “wet cooling:” CEQA also played a key role in pushing the California Energy Commission to discourage inland natural gas power plants from the practice of “wet cooling”—using groundwater to keep machinery from overheating. Instead, the state is now encouraging alternative “dry cooling” methods that won’t compete for the state’s water resources.

There have also been a wave of stories over the last few weeks highlighting how CEQA is being used to stymie some of the state’s most environmentally-sensitive developments:

  • Green housing in Berkeley: The left-leaning East Bay Express shared the story this week of a Berkeley developer whose plan to build what the paper calls “one of the greenest housing projects in East Bay history” has been tied up in a CEQA suit for four years, in spite of meeting LEED Platinum standards, the highest standard for environmental design. “[CEQA] has gotten in the way of projects that arguably should be considered environmentally sustainable,” notes Jeremy Madsen, executive director of Greenbelt Alliance, a group that supports smart growth.
  • Transit lines in Los Angeles: The CEQA Working Group released another case study this week featuring how CEQA has been used to stop the building of a transit line that will relieve congestion on a major Los Angeles freeway. A neighborhood group has locked the project up in a CEQA suit since 2010 while they push for an alternative route. Barring further delays, the project is finally underway—and is now scheduled to be completed eight years after the approval process began.
  • High-speed rail: The governor’s favorite reason for reforming CEQA got a boost this month when a judge dismissed a CEQA suit that threatened to disrupt high-speed rail’s route through the Bay Area. The suit, brought by the peninsula cities of Menlo Park and Atherton, had long been criticized for having more to do with the way the rail system will look than with any concern over its impact on the environment. “This lawsuit is a reminder that some sort of CEQA reform is badly needed,” writes Robert Cruickshank of the California High Speed Rail Blog. The Atherton City Council recently sent $10,000 to the lawyers representing the Central Valley farmers whose CEQA suit is high-speed rail’s next major hurdle. That case will be heard beginning in April.

CEQA in the 21st Century — a series of news stories and individual perspectives designed to educate and spark dialogue on CEQA as the California Legislature revisits the role the environmental law will play in the future of our economy.


Justin Ewers

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