Construction at Folsom Dam (Photo Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers).
A week after the governor made CEQA reform a top priority in his State of the State address, the battle lines over how (or whether) to reform the law are still blurry. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the tug-of-war behind the scenes in Sacramento is more nuanced than either business leaders or environmentalists are making it out to be.
The public back-and-forth
Sparring between business groups and environmentalists on opinion pages continued this week. Heartened by the governor’s speech, business leaders are increasing their calls for reform–with one saying Democrats tackling CEQA is like “Nixon going to China.” A new coalition of schools and public works agencies responsible for conducting CEQA’s environmental reviews has also jumped on the reform bandwagon with a detailed list of reform proposals.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, are digging in their heels. In a Sacramento Bee profile of Sen. Michael Rubio’s road to reform, Kathryn Phillips, the Sierra Club’s lead lobbyist, threw cold water on Rubio’s approach: “It’s getting him a lot of exposure, but I wish he would focus on something else that would be more productive.” Rubio’s colleague, Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), went further: “I don’t think that the so-called CEQA reform is the most urgent issue facing the state of California right now,” she said. “It’s just not.”
The underlying fight: “Standards”
Much of the talk about CEQA this week has revolved around the issue of “standards”–a reform path the governor mentioned in his address last week: “Our approach [to CEQA],” Brown said, “needs to be based more on consistent standards that provide greater certainty and cut needless delays.”
The “standards” approach took a star turn last year in Sen. Rubio’s aborted reform bill, which proposed to exempt projects that comply with all existing local, state, and federal environmental standards from CEQA lawsuits.
That bill was vehemently opposed by environmentalists, however, and Democratic leaders convinced Rubio to shelve it. While would-be reformers are still pushing for a “standards” approach, environmentalists insist it is a legal minefield and a political dead end. (The League of Women Voters, incidentally, seems to agree, standing up against changing the law in a way that would prevent citizens from going to court.)
The third way?
So, is that the end of comprehensive CEQA reform? Not necessarily. Robert Cruickshank of the California Progress Report has an insightful story on the complexities of environmental politics, arguing that CEQA reform isn’t just a fight between business and the environment. He thinks there are three groups in the mix (language is Cruickshank’s):
- Businesses and developers who chafe at the added time and cost created by CEQA. Some of these folks want to build environmentally friendly stuff and just want a law that works more easily, but others want to gut it with loopholes.
- Transit and sustainability advocates who are fed up with CEQA’s unnecessary delays, costs, and its empowering of NIMBYs – but who also generally support the law’s original goals and want to see it fixed rather than undermined.
- Conservationists and slow-growth or anti-growth folks who think CEQA works just fine as it is now.
The future of comprehensive CEQA reform, Cruickshank argues, is really a fight to win over California’s frustrated sustainability advocates, the group he considers himself part of.
“If reformers go too far with their proposals, they will drive those of us in group 2 into alliance with folks in group 3 to kill those proposals. But if reforms are not sufficient to fix CEQA’s problems, transportation and green energy projects will continue to be delayed or made more costly and demand for reform will continue, pushing folks in group 2 back into the arms of group 1.”
The first lawmakers line up
Since Sen. Rubio’s initial effort to win over green Democrats fell short, it’s not yet clear what his plans are. Environmentalists are stepping into the breach by proposing an array of smaller-scale changes. Sen. Noreen Evans and Assemblymember Das Williams outlined the basics of this approach in a Capitol Weekly piece this week, suggesting an array of legislative ideas that would make the law’s review process more transparent through more timely preparation of administrative records and greater access to electronic information.
The Planning & Conservation League also shared a longer list of CEQA-related legislation Democrats are considering (language below is PCL’s):
- Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson is also considering introducing CEQA legislation relating to greater access to information.
- Speaker Pro Tem Nora Campos has given language to the Office of Legislative Counsel that would require that CEQA notices be translated where a significant part of the population has limited English proficiency.
- Asm. Roger Dickinson is working on a bill that would require that notices be posted electronically, time periods for review have clear starting points, and public scoping periods are publicly announced.
- Asm. Tom Ammiano will also be introducing a bill to fix the Ballona Wetlands Trust decision to ensure that fault zones, flood zones, and wildfire hazard zones are taken into account in environmental review.
- Asm. Henry Perea already introduced a bill requiring electronic records of proceedings in CEQA cases (AB 37), which PCL supports in its current form.