CEQA Roundup: Five things to watch for

150 150 Justin Ewers

California Senate chamber. CEQA bills will either die in committee or find way to the full chamber floor by May (Photo Credit: David Monniaux)

With the Legislature on recess, the CEQA debate also took a hiatus this week. But with lawmakers back in session on April 1—and with early May deadlines looming for bills to move out of committee—the next month will mark the real beginning of the debate over how to update California’s premier environmental law.

As lawmakers consider more than two dozen CEQA-related bills, we highlight five things to watch for in the next stage of the debate:

1. What will the Assembly do? 
Most of the focus for the last few months has been on the CEQA proposals coming out of the state Senate—from Sen. Michael Rubio’s bid for comprehensive reform last summer to the scaled-down proposals in Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s SB 731. But what will the Assembly do? “We’ve got our eye on the Assembly for a counterproposal if the bill in the Senate ends up being too weak for the business community,” the San Francisco Chronicle’s Wyatt Buchanan said this week. When asked about his plans for CEQA at a recent press conference, Assembly Speaker John Pérez wouldn’t comment on Steinberg’s ideas: “Until that bill clears its first committee, we’re not going to be able to comment on it in any way,” Pérez said. The Speaker did say he believes it’s time for the Legislature to do something about CEQA to, as he put it, “shorten the delays, to shorten red tape… without undermining or eliminating any key environmental standards.”

2. What do Republicans want?
With Rubio no longer in the Legislature and with Steinberg moving away from dramatically changing the way CEQA works, Republican Sen. Tom Berryhill has picked up the comprehensive reform banner, arguing this week in the Fresno Bee that GOP lawmakers should demand “reform, not tweaks.” Legislative vote-counters may view a Republican CEQA bill as a long shot, but Berryhill seems determined to raise his profile on the issue—and he’s making a pitch to moderate Dems: “We know policy-making efforts are negotiations in which both sides give a little to get a little. Generally, that middle ground is where the public wants the Legislature to be.” (Whether that compromise is likely to be found in Berryhill’s bill, which revives the same language 33 Democrats signed a letter opposing last summer, remains to be seen.)

3. Where’s the governor?
Gov. Brown has stayed mum about what his hopes are for CEQA, in spite of calling for reform earlier this year. The governor seems to have meant what he said when he claimed he’d “never seen a CEQA exemption [he] didn’t like:” Brown has now certified two large green projects for fast-tracked judicial review under a law passed in 2011—including Apple’s new Cupertino campus and the McCoy Solar Project in Riverside County, a billion-dollar renewable energy facility. With that law itself also facing court challenges and with CEQA lawsuits looming before high-speed rail and the governor’s water project, Brown certainly has reason to stay engaged in the CEQA conversation. Brown will also be spending the months ahead negotiating new contracts with 19 of 21 state labor groups—most of whom are currently opposed to changing CEQA. Watch for a CEQA bill to become a bargaining chip.

4. Will the sustainable development community push for reform?
The best-organized groups in the CEQA debate remain the CEQA Works coalition of labor and environmental groups (who currently oppose changes that would weaken the law) and the business and local government coalition in the CEQA Working Group (which has pushed for reforms that go much further than most of this year’s bills). While there are environmentalists committed to preserving the key elements of CEQA on both sides of this issue, still missing from either coalition are many of the sustainability and transit advocates who would be most affected any changes to the way CEQA works in urban areas, the focus of Sen. Steinberg’s bill. As lawmakers winnow down their options in the coming weeks, look for more of those groups to make their views known.

5. What are the reform options?
Among the more than two dozen bills proposed by lawmakers, Sen. Steinberg’s SB 731 has gotten the most attention. His bill proposes to:

  • Provide more certainty for infill projects – by updating CEQA for infill developments to reduce urban sprawl. This includes expediting the process for new investments in clean energy, bike lanes, and transportation projects. He has also proposed setting clear minimum thresholds (an idea we’ve examined more closely) for impacts like parking, traffic, noise, and aesthetics to allow local agencies to standardize mitigation of those impacts.
  • Speed up the legal process – by reducing duplication in Environmental Impact Report (EIR) filings, by allowing courts to repair only portions of EIRs instead of requiring the entire report to be redone, and by prohibiting “document dumps” after the public comment period.
  • Update local plans – by providing $30 million in new funding to local governments to update general, area, and specific plans to better “tier” and streamline environmental review of compliant projects.

Lawmakers have also proposed a range of other potential changes to the law, including:

  • Changing the way records are kept – Sen. Noreen Evans has introduced two bills (SB 617 and SB 754) that would update the way the law requires records to be kept and mandate translation of the legal documents into other languages. These proposals are the only bills currently supported by environmental groups, who have said they’re unwilling to go further than this in updating the law. Look for these ideas to appear in any major bills that move forward.
  • Seeking project exemptions – A half-dozen bills seek exemptions for specific types of projects, including bike projects (AB 417), light and high-speed rail (SB 525), and energy management projects (AB 628, AB 930, and AB 1079). Because similar exemptions also appear in Steinberg’s bill, it seems likely that a list of green project exemptions will move forward.
  • Creating CEQA courts – Two bills have also been introduced that would create new provisions for specialized CEQA courts, including SB 123 (Corbett) and AB 515 (Dickinson). Attorney Arthur F. Coon, author of this informative piece on the current bill lineup, raises some legitimate questions about the political viability of expanding the court system at a time of judiciary budget cuts. These proposals may have a tough road ahead.

Justin Ewers

All stories by: Justin Ewers