by Robert Cruickshank/California High Speed Rail Blog
In a Sacramento Bee op-ed yesterday, former California Governors George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, and Gray Davis made a case for reforming the California Environmental Quality Act. When you add in Governor Jerry Brown, and former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (who has in the past expressed support for CEQA changes) you’ve got all five living California governors, with nearly 40 years of executive leadership, lined up behind changing the landmark law.
Here’s the core of their argument:
As three former California governors who often have differing views, on this point we wholeheartedly agree, and join with Gov. Brown in his call to modernize CEQA. While CEQA’s original intent must remain intact, now is the time to end reckless abuses of this important law – abuses that are threatening California’s economic vitality, costing jobs and wasting valuable taxpayer dollars.
Yes, CEQA has been an important law that for 40 years has protected our environment, resulted in better informed planning and assured more public input and involvement in community growth decisions. These aspects of CEQA must be preserved.
But over time, CEQA has also become the favorite tool of those who seek to stop economic growth and progress for reasons that have little to do with the environment. Today, CEQA is too often abused by those seeking to gain a competitive edge, to leverage concessions from a project or by neighbors who simply don’t want any new growth in their community – no matter how worthy or environmentally beneficial a project may be.
Sadly, documented cases of CEQA abuse include examples where CEQA has stood in the way of renewable energy projects, infill housing, schools, hospitals, universities, public transit and needed infrastructure. In fact, CEQA is often a direct barrier to the sustainable and environmentally friendly growth that California aspires to achieve.
Done right, CEQA modernization will not only end abuses, but will also help quicken our state’s economic recovery and work to protect taxpayer resources.
These former governors are absolutely right when they note that CEQA is sometimes abused by people who do not have environmentally friendly or sustainable goals in mind. We’ve seen this repeatedly, whether it’s a lawsuit blocking a bike master plan or the now-settled lawsuit from Chowchilla that used CEQA to attack the high speed rail project route because the tracks stood between the city and its desired sprawl. And transit advocates have repeatedly witnessed NIMBYs conflating their own aesthetic judgements with “environmental quality” and using that to delay or make more costly important transportation projects.
Where I think their argument falls apart is when they talk about the economic impact of CEQA. While some job-creating projects would be authorized with a more streamlined CEQA process, those projects that aren’t actually very environmentally friendly would wind up costing the state more jobs than it would create over the long term, especially as the economic impact of sprawl and carbon emissions becomes clear. CEQA shouldn’t be reformed because it makes it harder to hire people to build stuff, it should be reformed because it makes it harder to hire people to build sustainable stuff.
If building a strong 21st century economy is the goal, then modernizing CEQA to favor carbon reducing projects while disfavoring carbon emitting projects should be the path forward. But these governors aren’t calling for that.
It’s also unclear that their proposed reforms would protect the spirit of CEQA:
We must update this 40-year-old law so that it better integrates and coordinates with the hundreds of newer environmental protection mandates adopted since CEQA’s passage, instead of requiring redundant and inconsistent reviews, as present law requires.
For example, today a project could meet all of the Clean Air Act mandates required of it and still be challenged under CEQA over the project’s air impacts. In this way CEQA leaves even the best intended and environmentally friendly projects that have complied with the extensive body of environmental laws and regulation vulnerable to litigation.
It does make sense to harmonize CEQA with other laws to the extent possible – but only so long as doing so does not create a weaker standard. The federal Clean Air Act is not the strongest law out there, and federal law is constantly subject to pressure from the right to be weakened. California definitely should have a higher standard than the rest of the nation, and CEQA should be part of that higher standard. So I am definitely wary of this approach and am not convinced it’s going to maintain strong environmental standards.
Still, these three former governors have a point about CEQA’s flaws. It’s just not acceptable when projects that help build sustainable communities and reduce carbon emissions can be held up or made more expensive by NIMBYs who do not actually have environmental quality in mind. CEQA defenders are right to be wary of exactly what a reform proposal looks like, and I’m reserving judgment until I see actual text. But CEQA defenders are going to struggle to make their case that major changes aren’t needed when we have so many examples of good projects, from solar panels to wind farms to electric trains to bike lanes, being held up and made more costly by CEQA lawsuits.
State environmental law should encourage good projects from being built, not discourage them. In a post later this week, we’ll take a closer look at what a good CEQA reform might look like. I am increasingly skeptical that 2013 will offer an opportunity for the ideal reforms to be seriously considered. But it will still be worth thinking about what we want, as it can help us assess the forthcoming reform proposals.