CEQA Roundup: What’s next after Rubio?

150 150 Justin Ewers

The CEQA legislation has taken a backseat to the news story of Rubio’s Senate departure.

California political reporters have spent much of the last week taking a deep dive into the implications of Michael Rubio’s departure from the Senate—while largely ignoring the actual CEQA legislation Sen. Darrell Steinberg introduced last Friday.

“We were taken aback by Sen. Michael Rubio’s announcement Friday that he not only is leaving office before completing his term, but is taking a job as a lobbyist for Chevron, the San Ramon-based oil giant,” the Orange County Register said in an editorial that summed up the statewide reaction to the Rubio news. The paper acknowledged that they “do not begrudge the Democrat…the bigger paycheck he will command.” But they also point out that Sacramento’s foremost champion for CEQA reform jumping ship to work for the state’s biggest oil company hasn’t done reformers any favors.

The Sacramento Bee, meanwhile, has rolled out a full complement of stories on Rubio’s departure: One looks at how unusual it is for a state lawmaker to jump straight to the private sector. Another looks at Rubio’s housing troubles. Yet another tackles the question of why Chevron wanted Rubio in the first place. And then there’s the speculation about Rubio’s departure disrupting Democrats’ supermajority.

What about CEQA?

What the papers have not yet done in any detail is examine what’s in SB 731, Sen. Steinberg’s reform bill—or the two dozen other CEQA-related bills that have now been introduced. 

The Economic Summit offered this brief analysis of Steinberg’s legislation, which includes intent language that focuses mostly on speeding up the CEQA process for infill development projects.

This week, Barbara Schussman, managing partner at the law firm Perkins Coie, provided a more comprehensive look at where Steinberg seems headed.  “The bill is more remarkable for what it lacks,” she says, “than for what it contains.” Unlike then- Sen. Rubio’s CEQA reform effort of last year, Steinberg has left behind the so-called standards approach, which environmentalists refused to support. And he says he won’t touch rules governing who can bring a CEQA lawsuit, which labor was opposed to.

Absent those two provisions, Steinberg’s bill seems likely to shift the CEQA conversation away from what appeared to be a looming political showdown. Its focus on environmentally-conscious infill development projects also makes the bill’s passage more likely (though environmentalists still remain wary).

But what’s actually in the bill? “While the Steinberg bill doesn’t include sweeping measures to overhaul CEQA,” Schussman says, “it targets some important areas of the law where revisions, if carefully crafted, could reduce delay and uncertainty.” Her take on where Steinberg has proposed changes:

  • Significance Thresholds. The bill calls for the Legislature to set thresholds of significance for noise, aesthetics, parking and traffic levels of service.  The idea is that if a project can meet such a threshold, no additional environmental review would be required for those impacts. 
  • Limited Review for Specified Projects. The bill proposes to convert CEQA Guidelines addressing infill development to statutory provisions.  It also expresses an intent to explore amendments to expand the definition of “infill” to include projects in the Central Valley, and to further streamline CEQA review for renewable energy, advanced manufacturing, transit, bike, pedestrian, and renewable energy transmission projects. 
  • Projects Implementing Specific Plans and Sustainable Communities Strategies. The bill proposes to tighten up existing streamlining provisions to provide greater certainty and avoid duplicative CEQA review for projects implementing a specific plan.  The bill also suggests that similar treatment might be available for projects implementing Sustainable Communities Strategies adopted under SB 375 or other types of plans adopted within the past five years. 
  • Late Hits and Data Dumps. The bill states an intention to address the practice of filing last minute comment letters, often containing voluminous data and new information. 
  • Judicial Remedies.  The bill would provide clearer instructions to courts in crafting a remedy that preserves portions of a CEQA document that are not found to violate CEQA.  The bill also calls for exploring options to keep approvals in place so that projects can proceed while an agency cures a CEQA defect. 

Where’s the governor on CEQA?

With Rubio no longer in the picture, it’s not yet clear who in Sacramento has the appetite to go beyond what Steinberg has proposed. Some are now looking to Gov. Brown, who acknowledged last week that he was caught flat-footed by Rubio’s resignation.

Brown has been cagey about exactly how he’d like to see the law changed, in spite of his remarks in his State of the State. Some have speculated that when the governor called CEQA reform “the Lord’s work” last year—saying “I’ve never seen a CEQA exemption I didn’t like”—he was really trying to pave the way for high-speed rail.

As a story in the San Francisco Chronicle this week points out, Brown has taken just about every position on CEQA it’s possible to take over the course of his career. Says the Chron:

Brown was the infant law’s fierce defender during his first stint as governor from 1975 to 1983. He sought exemptions to it as mayor of Oakland from 1999 to 2007 and enforced it vigorously to enact climate change protections as state attorney general from 2007 to 2011. In his third term as governor, the 74-year-old former seminarian calls reforming CEQA “the Lord’s work.”

So where does Brown want to push the CEQA conversation? Ann Nothoff from the Natural Resources Defense Council says that question “has me scratching my head.”

Plenty of bills to choose from

If he wants to continue pushing for major CEQA reform, the governor has plenty of legislative options before him. In addition to the high-profile Steinberg bill, more than two dozen other CEQA-related bills have now been introduced.

Most of these bills are authored by green Democrats pushing for relatively modest modifications to the law, although Republicans have also proposed some changes, as well:

  • Changing the way records are kept: As she promised she would, 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.
  • Seeking project exemptions: A half-dozen bills seek exemptions for specific projects, including bike projects (AB 417), light and high-speed rail (SB 525), and energy management projects (AB 628, AB 930, and AB 1079).
  • CEQA judges: Two bills have also been introduced that would create new provisions for specialized CEQA judges, including SB 123 (Corbett) and AB 515 (Dickinson).
  • GOP proposals: A few Republican lawmakers have also introduced CEQA-related bills, including Sen. Tom Berryhill, who has revived Sen. Rubio’s standards approach in SB 787.

Justin Ewers

All stories by: Justin Ewers