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State’s environmental rules may be eased for major projects

Years of exemptions from California’s principal environmental protection law are being crafted in the Capitol by the Schwarzenegger administration and lawmakers in both parties, who believe speedy approval of dozens of projects, public and private, will create jobs and spur economic growth.

The projects are potentially worth billions of dollars and thousands of jobs — although just how much money and how many jobs have not yet been identified. “If there is a list, if it exists, nobody has seen it,” one Capitol staffer said.

“California is going through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression,” said Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa, author of one of the exemption bills. “This continues to provide environmental protection, and balances that with the opportunity to create jobs.”

“This isn’t about CEQA, it’s about jobs,” he added.

Environmentalists say the proposed end-run around the California Environmental Quality Act constitutes one of the most significant changes to CEQA since the law was written 40 years ago and inspired environmental legislation across the country. CEQA is a frequent target of lawsuits and legislation.

The proposals are supported by manufacturers, builders, engineers, developers, business interests and others. They say their intent is to expedite construction of numerous, still-unknown projects and jumpstart the weak economy. The proposals restrict the power of the courts to review the projects and give final authority over the projects to the administration.
Supporters say the proposal simply expedites projects that already have won CEQA approval from protracted court fights, but environmentalists say that legal review is a critical piece of CEQA, and that going around it dramatically weakens the law.

Four bills – two in each house – contain Schwarzenegger’s proposal to exempt 25 projects, selected geographically by county, from court review and CEQA each year through 2014. Two of the bills are regular-session measures, the other two were introduced in the 8th Special Session. All are mirror images of each other. Privately, those familiar with the legislation say there is a scramble among lobbyists to get clients’ projects on the exemption list.

The projects could range from refineries to commercial development, housing tracts, highways and water works, among others.

A fifth bill, which would apply retroactively, would exempt critical infrastructure projects for flood control, highways, port security, disaster preparedness and air quality. The proposal is similar to a plan that was proposed last year and rejected. Funding for the projects was approved by voters in 2006 as Proposition 1B, the $19.9 billion transportation bond, and Proposition 1E, the $4.1 billion flood protection bond. Of the funding that was approved, about $16 billion worth of bond funding remains unissued.

The measures containing the administration’s proposals have Democratic and Republican authors. The fifth bill, the infrastructure plan, is authored by Senate GOP Leader Dennis Hollingsworth.

CEQA has long been a target of developers, builders, manufacturers, timber and mining interests and others, but the latest series of bills seeking changes is unusual for their number and scope, observers say. They cite the Legislature’s earlier approval of exemptions for air-emission credits for the South Coast Air Quality Management District and a proposed NFL stadium in Los Angeles County as the progenitors of the latest legislation. Those two proposals constituted the most significant environment-related legislation of 2009.

“We said at the time that they would encourage more of these proposals, and it’s done exactly that,” said Bill Magavern of Sierra Club California. “We’re seeing a stepped-up attack on CEQA this year, and I think we’re seeing development interests using the recession as an excuse for the CEQA rollbacks that they have been gunning for.”

The administration’s proposal, reported by Capitol Weekly in January, is being carried in the Assembly as AB1805 and AB37 8X by Assemblymen Charles Calderon, D-Montebello, and Brian Nestande, R-Riverside. In the Senate, Sens. Correa and Dave Cogdill, R-Fresno, are authoring virtually identical bills, SB 42 8X and SB 1010.

The infrastructure exemptions are contained in SB 56 by Hollingsworth, R-Murietta.

The administration’s proposal allows exemptions for at least 25 construction projects located across California. Ten would be chosen from Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties; five from Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Solano and Sonoma counties; five from Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tulare; and five projects located in the rest of the state.

The proposal, which includes a provision for at least one public hearing and legislative input, gives final authority over the projects to the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, or BTH, a cabinet-level superagency whose secretary, a gubernatorial appointee, reports directly to the governor.

The goal of the governor’s proposal is to expedite projects that would generate jobs and stimulate the sluggish economy.

The proposal sets up a timetable for projects to be approved, and allows for approval if the entity seeking the project expects the project ultimately to receive environmental approval.

If the project fails the environmental certification, the BTH can choose alternates. The plan calls for BTH to give lawmakers and the public a list of the projects that win final approval.
Environmentalists said the governor’s plan would weaken environmental safeguards, and questioned whether the language barring court review would pass constitutional muster.

Last year, the governor signed AB 81 3X by Assemblyman Isadore Hall, D-Compton, that streamlined certain CEQA requirements to construct a new NFL stadium in the City of Industry. The stadium proposal, already exempted, would not be covered by the latest legislation.

The governor also signed SB 827 by Sen. Rod Wright, D-Los Angeles, with an estimated $4 billion economic impact affecting some 65,000 jobs in the L.A. basin. The bill allows air regulators to distribute valuable emissions credits in the way they did before the courts, responding to environmentalists, blocked them.

Years of exemptions from California’s principal environmental protection law are being crafted in the Capitol by the Schwarzenegger administration and lawmakers in both parties, who believe speedy approval of dozens of projects, public and private, will create jobs and spur economic growth.


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