Environmental bargaining chips
In the fall of 2009, billionaire Ed Roski Jr. went to the California Legislature looking for a deal. Roski wanted to build a football stadium in the Los Angeles suburb City of Industry, but the California Environmental Quality Act was getting in his way, and Roski thought lawmakers should exempt his project from the act. Whether he'd have a team to occupy the stadium or be able to get financing to break ground was all up in the air. Still, with unemployment in L.A. County over 12 percent, this was no time to worry about environmental regulation. Or so the argument went.
What politicos call a 'mushroom bill' -- the kind that crop up in the midnight hours of legislative sessions -- emerged in the California Assembly to grant the stadium a full exemption, and it quickly passed through the Assembly and the Senate. "Just this once, lawmakers said, they would sweep away a few nonessential items that surely no one would miss. Things like, say, state land-use law, environmental regulation and, what the heck, judicial review," as an L.A. Times editorial put it.
CEQA -- California's "little NEPA" -- requires state and local agencies to review, avoid and mitigate the environmental impacts of projects they approve. It's often bemoaned by developers like Roski for taking too much time and money to comply with, and for inviting frivolous lawsuits. ("It is not uncommon for businesses, such as retailers, to organize and fund groups to oppose developments by their competitors under the guise of CEQA," members of a Los Angeles business group recently opined in the L.A. Times.) Environmentalists, on the other hand, celebrate it for holding developers, industry and public agencies accountable, and for encouraging public participation in environmental review. And CEQA lawsuits, which any private citizen can bring, have resulted in a number of big environmental victories. For example, a coalition of community and environmental groups stopped an expansion of the Port of Los Angeles, one of Southern California's most prolific polluters, in 2002 by suing the city for failing to prepare an environmental impact report for the expansion, as required by CEQA. Similarly, a CEQA lawsuit halted a major expansion of the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond in 2009 because its environmental impact report was too vague about the project's effects.
The Roski bill wasn't the first time CEQA exemptions had been sought and granted. But it and the copycats it inspired reached further, and environmentalists and some lawmakers feared that the Roski bill would be the straw that broke CEQA's back. The bill usurped active CEQA litigation over the adequacy of the stadium's environmental review. And in Roski's wake, then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed for legislation that would allow his administration to cherry-pick 125 more construction projects to exempt from CEQA over five years. “It is telling just how far the environmental movement has fallen in that the current Governor, a Republican who likes to style himself an environmental champion, is seeking to neuter the law,” remarked Brian Leubitz of the progressive California political blog Calitics. A ballot measure that would have taken away the public's ability to use CEQA to challenge projects in court was also considered.
Those efforts failed, but in the name of economic salvation, the attacks on CEQA have kept up. In the past month, a handful of Republican state senators have used CEQA reform as a bargaining chip in budget negotiations with Gov. Jerry Brown. And what they asked for, like the proposed ballot measure that failed to make it through the Legislature in 2010, would box the public out of meaningful participation in state-level environmental review. Here's a summary from an L.A. Times editorial:
The Republicans' draft bill would make it easier for a developer to avoid having to produce costly studies of a project's environmental impact, and would give far less weight to the effect of greenhouse gas emissions. It would bar anyone but the state attorney general from enforcing the act, eliminating the public's right to challenge a proposed development in court over its environmental impact. And it would exempt much more development within cities from the act, as well as infrastructure work by telephone companies trying to compete with cable operators for pay-TV customers.
Brown hasn't caved to these demands. But pressure to update, reform, and in some cases dismantle, CEQA will persist. There's a legitimate debate to be had there, but as the L.A. Times editorial points out: "Such sweeping changes need to be scrutinized in full public view, not in secret, down-to-the-wire budget talks. Though CEQA may lead to some abusive lawsuits that are motivated more by anti-competitive interests than environmental concerns, eliminating the public's right to enforce CEQA is far too drastic a solution."
Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.
Image of Port of Los Angeles courtesy Flickr user Al Thomas.