Policy wonks are abuzz with debate about not whether, but how, the California Environmental Quality Act should be reformed. A full-scale effort is underway to paint this landmark environmental law as broken. Implications abound through selective sampling and anecdotes that CEQA does more harm than good. Our experience, and that of our constituents, tells a different story about how CEQA really works.
Forty-three years after it was signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan, CEQA continues to provide essential environmental protections.
CEQA was designed to give a voice to local people in local planning decisions. It ensures that residents in every California community can understand how land use decisions will impact shared resources – like clean air, clean water, open space, and traffic flow – and public health. It also empowers community members to hold public agencies accountable to local and state environmental laws.
We cannot get rid of the requirement to disclose information to the public, allow public participation in the process, and the ability of the public to enforce the law when government is unable or unwilling to do so.
CEQA benefits our state’s quality of life and economy. However, there are a number of updates to improve CEQA’s efficiency that we could easily support. These include shifting to electronic noticing and administrative record preparation. We agree we should make the public comment period consistent throughout all California jurisdictions. These kinds of modifications would give both the public and project proponents more certainty in the environmental review process.
We would like to see the environmental review process made even more transparent. The most polluting projects are often located in proximity to low-income communities, which sometimes include large populations with limited proficiency in English. CEQA should require translation of notices and executive summaries of documents for projects located in communities where English is the second language for a significant proportion of the population.
Other opportunities for making CEQA stronger include adding an environmental justice component to the required areas of analysis in an Environmental Impact Report. We also support raising the standard for overriding considerations that allow environmentally damaging projects to move forward without sufficient mitigation. And we should close loopholes in order to make sure CEQA fully evaluates the potential safety hazards of projects on local communities.
We are proud to be considering the introduction of bills that, if adopted, would provide some of these added protections, and look forward to the Legislature delving into the real opportunities for helping CEQA to work even better for our communities.
However, we would apply the physicians’ rule of “First do no harm.” We must preserve what is best about CEQA. We will resist efforts to fix problems that have already been addressed by previous legislation or are unsubstantiated. For instance, until we see how well SB 226 (Simitian, 2011) and SB 375 (Steinberg, 2008) succeed at streamlining the approval process for infill development, we hesitate to add additional requirements into that area of the law. We also do not believe that providing blanket CEQA exemptions for industries that purport to be “green” is the best approach to improving the environmental review process.
Projects like utility-scale renewable energy or High Speed Rail, which offer potential environmental benefits, can also have significant environmental and public health impacts. History shows us that CEQA works well when the protections it provides are in place, and such projects are improved through the rigorous and transparent environmental review process CEQA provides.
Last, we will not strip the California Environmental Quality Act of its most important provisions simply because some allege it has played a role in our state’s economic challenges. California has seen more periods of growth and prosperity since 1970 than it has seen hard times. And despite this exponential growth, we still enjoy beautiful beaches, air quality has improved, and we are leading the way in the United States in tackling the difficult challenge of climate change. Our strides in all of these areas show just how well CEQA already works.
Whatever changes we might make to CEQA this year, we must leave its core principles intact: transparency in planning, mitigation of significant environmental damage, comprehensive protections to ensure cumulative analysis of impacts, robust and meaningful public participation, and the right of communities to use the court system to enforce these protections. The Californians of today – and of tomorrow – deserve nothing less.
Ed’s Note: Noreen Evans is the State Senator for California’s District 2, which spans the North Coast and includes one-third of California’s coastline from Santa Rosa to Eureka. Assembly Member Das Williams represents California’s 37th Assembly District, which includes portions of Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties.