Environmental rules face budget woes

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hard-times budget proposal to balance the state’s books hinders California’s efforts to curb global warming and weakens the state’s principal environmental law, environmentalists contend. Fears of an economic meltdown appear to be driving the shift, which conflicts with the governor’s public image as a warrior to curb greenhouse gases.

“He seems to be panicked. Instead of moving ahead calmly and deliberately, he is throwing possible solutions out there, giving a sense that he is spooked by the economy. There is a sense of panic, and I think it’s out of character,” said Gary Patton, general counsel of the Planning and Conservation League. “The governor’s immediate instincts are usually right, so I think he’s just spooked.”

The administration, while acknowledging that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of publicly funded construction would be exempt from some environmental rules, says it strongly favors environmental protection and supports the California Environmental Quality Act, the state’s principal environmental protection law. But it notes that the economy is a top priority.

“The governor is not proposing that CEQA be suspended. He remains 100 percent committed to protecting the environment. But during the economic crisis we have to be creative to get people back to work. This (budget proposal) will speed up construction time as much as a year, stimulate the economy and create new construction jobs – without compromising CEQA,” said Lisa Page, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Environmentalists are skeptical.

In a letter to the governor and legislative leaders, the Environmental Defense Fund said it was concerned that the governor's plan emphasized speed at the expense of project quality, reduced the ability of the public to comment on the projects and weakened CEQA.

"One of the most important values of CEQA, especially where publicly funded projects are concerned, is that it provides the public most affected by the projects time to review and comment," said EDF Regional Director Laura Harnish, who urged the administration "to take CEQA exemptions off the table during the budget and job-stimulation conversations."

The budget reflects the dilemma facing the governor, forcing him to choose between the hard realities of the economy and his desire to protect the environment.

Environmentalists note that more than a third of California’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation related projects, and many of those would be exempted from environmental rules under the budget plan. “We don’t think you revive the economy by rolling back our standards that protect air and water and land,” said Bill Magavern of the Sierra Club.

Schwarzenegger, facing an immediate $11.2 billion budget hole and a potential $28 billion shortage over two years, has called the Legislature into special session to approve an array of changes in state laws to help erase red ink. The big-ticket proposals, such as a 1.5-cent increase in the sales tax and cuts in public education funding, have captured the public’s attention.

But the governor’s other proposals, contained in a 41-page draft of legislation reviewed by Capitol Weekly, target a series of additional issues, including public-private infrastructure plans, workplace rules and overtime laws, hospital construction, speeded-up sales of surplus state property and the expedited construction of transportation projects.

Generally, the goal of the construction proposals is to streamline government regulation and, in the case of the transportation projects, expedite massive public works projects as a shot in the arm to the ailing economy. Some $821.5 milllion worth of projects are targeted for exemptions under the governor’s proposal, including $384 million worth of projects funded by the voter-approved Proposition 1B.  The projects are part of the administration’s plan to speed up some $2.3 billion in construction and procurement projects, including $800 million for transit systems to pay for construction and buy equipment.

But the downside is the potential weakening of CEQA and the injection of a new group of political appointees do decide which projects get approved.

One bill, which the governor and even the media described as “historic” and a “landmark,” could be weakened by governor’s own proposal, critics contend.

Among other things, that bill, SB 375 by Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, seeks to cut pollution by curbing suburban sprawl. The bill, which won’t be in full effect for years, sets targets for regional planning organizations, cuts sprawl through “infill” developments to limit commutes and  carbon emissions, and requires the state Air Resources Board to oversee the process. Developers, originally opposed, supported the final version of the bill after it included a number of exemptions to CEQA. Environmentalists, too, supported the measure.

The governor’s special-session proposal includes the creation of a top-level panel — composed of his appointees heading the state Environmental Protection Agency, the Resources Agency and the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency– who could override decisions by local, regional or state agencies in connection with SB 375, or other laws, according to critics, if the decisions involved some bond-funded projects.

 “The administration has quietly proposed waiving all GHG (greenhouse gas) pollution reduction requirements, and other environmental requirements, for large transportation and flood projects as part of its “economic stimulus” proposals in the budget,” one Capitol expert’s private analysis said.

In addition, agencies must act on permit applications for transportation or flood control projects within 15 days, or the project is automatically approved. If the agency rejects the permit, the tribunal can override the decision.

The result is that projects will get a green light, regardless of their environmental impact, according to environmentalists.
For example, the disputed widening of U.S. Highway 50, a busy east-west highway that runs from Sacramento into the Sierra and beyond, was halted by the courts because, in part, it did not include greenhouse gas emissions in its environmental planning. That project could be approved by the high-level panel under the governor’s plan.

“They (the administration) is going through the back door,” Magavern said. “It really is making policy. In the Highway 50 case, local environmentalists won a decision in court preventing the project from going ahead, without a CEQA review. This proposal would overturn that decision.”

The proposals were disclosed in the Capitol even as an international conference called by the governor on global warming was scheduled to convene in Los Angeles – the latest in a long series of events in which the governor seeks to depict himself as a committed fighter against greenhouse gas emissions.

Any weakening of CEQA carries an additional problem.

The ARB is scheduled to adopt the state’s blueprint to fight carbon emissions by the end of the year. The board’s approval means work will begin on writing the pivotal carbon emissions regulations that will actually put the program into effect, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020.  But those regulations will not take effect until 2012. For the three-year period until the new regulations take effect, the state’s main environmental safeguard will be CEQA. Some of the AB 32-related pro
visions already are in effect, but a big piece of the law — the creation of a cap-and-trade system to control pollution credits — won't be in place until 2012.

But if CEQA is weakened now, the state’s environmental protections will be weakened during the next three years, critics contend. What happens then?

“That’s the problem,” Patton said. “Currently, CEQA is the main environmental tool. For three years, until we get the protections of AB 32, the only mechanism that can be used is CEQA.”

Another problem, fiscal as well as environmental, is the governor’s special-session proposal to suspend the Williamson Act, a state-backed plan that compensates farmers for hanging on to their land instead of turning it over to developers. Suspending the law saves the state an estimated $34.7 million in reimbursements. But the agreements with the farmers include 10-year and 20-year agreements. Suspending the state’s promise of reimbursements leaves the counties on the hook for the money.

“Virtually every environmental organization that lobbies in Sacramento has noted this fundamental disconnect between the governor’s stated commitment on greenhouse gas emissions and this budget proposal. We are going to fight that,” Patton said. “And it’s retroactive. We can’t be cutting what’s already there if we are going to deal with the global warming crisis.”

But the administration, defending the governor’s role as an environmental advocate, believes the governor is striking a proper balance between environmental safeguards and environmental necessity.

“We have drastic problems that require drastic and immediate action,” Schwarzenegger said when he announced his budget plan. A key piece of that is “pushing out and expediting infrastructure bond monies to create jobs and help unemployed residential construction workers in the hardest hit areas of the state get trained in a new type of construction.”

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