CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, is California’s most important environmental statute. It’s a “truth in lending act” for the environment. It requires government to admit the environmental damage projects cause, AND look at reducing or avoiding that damage. It also encourages public participation. However, because CEQA violations invalidate project approvals, it is favorite punching bag for developers, business groups, and recently Governor Brown, who said he never saw a CEQA exemption he didn’t like.
In recent legislative sessions, a pattern has emerged. As the session winds down, suddenly legislation appears to “reform” CEQA. In 2008, then-governor Schwarzenegger pushed through a CEQA exemption for twelve Caltrans projects. The next session, a developer got a CEQA exemption for an enormous Southern California stadium project. Last session, another stadium got CEQA “streamlining.” Then, at the eleventh hour, the offer was expanded to a group of huge projects the governor (now Jerry Brown) would pick.
As the current legislative session ends, the same pattern is repeating with vengeance. A coalition of business and development interests is proposing a bill, SB 317, to not just weaken, but eviscerate CEQA. Pointing to the range of regulatory laws in effect, they argue that CEQA has outlived its usefulness and should be largely replaced by reliance on other environmental and planning laws. This ignores a number of basic facts: 1) these same forces have, for the past forty years, fought, often successfully, to weaken the laws they claim make CEQA unnecessary; 2) state planning laws often exempt charter cities entirely, and defer to local decision makers, who, influenced by these same special interests, often make decisions at the expense of their own constituents; 3) only CEQA brings the searchlight of public scrutiny on environmental decision-making. Most other environmental laws involve obscure bureaucrats with little incentive to require rigorous compliance.
With our continuing economic doldrums, it is tempting to think weakening CEQA will result in more jobs, more economic activity, and a better future. However, it’s worth remembering that 1) the more than 99% of CEQA projects get though without a hitch; 2) while CEQA lawsuits are rare, even rarer is a project halted or even greatly delayed, and 3) for every good project that might be somewhat delayed, many more unnecessarily environmentally damaging projects are either stopped or (far more often) revised and improved through the CEQA process.
There were good reasons why CEQA was created, and those reasons are still valid. Before there was CEQA, public and private entities did lots of environmental damage because nobody asked tough questions. From pesticides, to toxic mines and groundwater contamination, to smog, to the Cypress Structure, the litany of damage to California’s environment, and to society, that happened before CEQA is long. And who do you suppose ends up bearing the cost for cleaning up those messes? More often than not, it is the public purse, and taxpayers, who pick up the tab. While other laws form an ever-more-fragile patchwork (much like our increasingly-frayed social “safety net”), only CEQA requires comprehensive environmental scrutiny, and only CEQA affirmatively involves the public. If you feel CEQA is still important to protect California’s environment, and your pocketbook, now’s the time to let your legislators know!