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Know the West

Economy vs. environment?


The state legislative universe is famously sluggish. Moves toward significant change tend to ooze at the pace of cold honey while lawmakers waste time bickering over bills that everyone knows won't go anywhere.

But California lawmakers last week managed to rush through a handful of measures (spearheaded by Democrats) that selectively tweak the California Environmental Quality Act, including one that would streamline the judicial review process for any legal challenges to a football stadium and convention center that Anschutz Entertainment Group has proposed for downtown Los Angeles. Depending on whether Gov. Jerry Brown signs the measures into law (he has until Oct. 9), they may represent the culmination of an at least two-year quest to weaken the state's decades-old bedrock environmental law. (Such efforts have failed to date because earlier proposals were too far-reaching.) If I followed sports more closely, I would close this paragraph with the kind of zingy football metaphor that such last-minute, speedy maneuvering warrants.

CEQA -- which was inspired by the National Environmental Policy Act and itself inspired similar laws in other states -- requires state and local agencies to review a project's environmental impacts as NEPA does, but goes a step or two further, requiring them to avoid and mitigate the impacts of those they approve. In California's grim economy (it had the second highest unemployment rate in the country as of June), the law has become a favorite target because, like NEPA, it's the starting point for lawsuits intended to stave off environmental harms, which can cause costly delays for developers, and to borrow an annoying phrase from pundits and politicians, "kill jobs" (insert sound of dying job here: "aieeeeee!").

These latest bills appear more limited than past attempts to gut the law. The stadium bill -- SB 292 -- doesn't exempt the project from CEQA, but rather sends environmental lawsuits that target it straight past the state Supreme Court to an appellate court (subscription required). A similar measure -- AB 900 -- would allow Gov. Brown to grant the same expedited legal review to projects that generate over $100 million in investments for the state and generate no new greenhouse gasses. Once there, the court would have to make a decision within 175 days. "The CEQA reforms are an effort to improve the jobs climate. I think that will be good," Brown said of the latter measure in a Los Angeles Times interview. A third bill -- SB 226 -- exempts projects deemed environmentally friendly or infill-oriented from CEQA review.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and California League of Conservation Voters support the stadium bill because its application is extremely limited and it contains strong provisions for traffic control/reduction and carbon neutrality. But otherwise, enviros' reactions to the suite of bills that have hit the press so far are almost universally negative. "I don't think the authors are fully aware of what (AB 900) is going to do," Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips told the San Francisco Chronicle:

"They've taken a level of appeal out of this. ... It would reduce the opportunity to make sure there is a full review of what the project proponent has done." Phillips said the argument that environmental litigation hurts the economy by delaying development is a fallacy. "You've got to understand that it's a very small number of projects that actually get to court... Environmental review doesn't stop jobs. What's stopping jobs is that developers are having difficulty getting financing. Attacking California's environmental laws is not the way to create jobs. That will just make California's environmental quality worse."

Meanwhile, other groups charge that 226 doesn't do a good enough job defining what qualifies as green or as urban infill, opening the door for conventional, greenwashed projects to slip through without environmental review. Still more were upset over how quickly the bills were introduced, amended and passed -- leaving little time for review and public participation.

Interestingly, despite the outcry, there seems to be an underlying agreement that CEQA needs to be reformed in some way so that it isn't used by businessfolk to stymie competing projects, or to endlessly delay "good projects" that people object to for reasons that don't involve the environment. "It's bad policy to offer special treatment to certain projects (like the AEG stadium)," opines the LA Times, and the authority given to Gov. Brown by AB 900 "would further politicize a process that is better handled outside the realm of special deals, but at least it opens a discussion that legislators in both parties need to join. It's time get down to the important business of reviewing CEQA thoughtfully and carefully, not for one developer at a time but for all Californians."

Sarah Gilman is associate editor of High Country News

Image of the Los Angeles skyline, from Dodger stadium, by Flickr user jondoeforty1.