January 17, 2017

Watch out for so-called CEQA reforms–our best environmental-protection law is under attack

Sierra Club California logo.You have probably been hearing a lot lately about reforming the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). 

Don’t be fooled by that nice word “reform”. The bill proposed late last year would have gutted California’s most important environmental-protection law. Leading legislators backed by a strong business and developer coalition continue to regard CEQA reform as a top priority. Moreover, Gov. Brown is strongly sympathetic.

With widespread fracking on the horizon; with global warming and its impacts increasingly obvious; with water supplies diminishing, and huge infrastructure projects proposed, this is not the time to weaken the laws that protect our environment.

CEQA does three critically important things.

First, it makes government agencies stop and think before they act. Often officials decide that they know a good project when they see one and want to push it through. For instance, the governor has a high-speed-rail plan, and big plans for Delta tunnels. Many assume that proposals such as large-scale wind or solar energy projects are automatically good for the environment. CEQA makes them submit any proposed project that might have a significant adverse impact on the environment to a full analysis, to “stop and think”. That word “might” intentionally sets a very low threshold, that applies even when the government and project proponent can make a pretty good case that the impacts from the proposed project would basically be good. Sometimes the government changes its mind about a project, at least in part, precisely because of the new information generated through the environmental review that CEQA demands. Often the changes are improvements, so that projects (even good projects) are made better. That has been happening for more than 40 years, all over the state, thanks to the California Environmental Quality Act.

Second, CEQA gives ordinary individuals real power in the approval process. Without CEQA, members of the public may get two or three minutes at the lectern, to make remarks that are then routinely ignored by the local or state officials who will make the decision, and who may not even be listening to the public comments as they are being made. If you have ever sent a thoughtful letter to an elected offcial, and not even gotten an answer, you get the picture. CEQA requires the responsible agency to respond substantively to all comments received on a Draft Environmental Impact Report. Time after time, the courts have found an agency’s EIR inadequate if substantive responses are not provided to well-founded and substantive comments. CEQA is the only California law that makes governmental agencies respond to public concerns in a substantive way, before the government takes action.

Third, when an EIR identifies a way to eliminate or lessen a negative impact, the responsible agency is required to implement that measure. For instance, if an EIR says that adverse impacts on wildlife habitat can feasibly be reduced by permanently protecting similar habitat, then CEQA requires that this mitigation measure be funded and implemented. This substantive mandate—unique to CEQA—costs developers money, and makes sure that the true cost of projects is borne by those who get the benefits, not the public at large. Reluctance of business and development interests to pay for required mitigations is probably the main reason they are attacking the California Environmental Quality Act.

If you want your government to stop and think before it acts and to provide substantive responses to public concerns before making a project decision, and if you want developers and other project proponents to pay for feasible mitigation measures to reduce impacts, then watch out for those so-called CEQA reforms. Obviously, almost any law could be made to operate better and more effectively; where CEQA is concerned, however, current reform efforts are not really about “reform”. They are trying to take away one of the best laws we have ever had.

What can concerned citizens do to sustain the California Environmental Quality Act, as it comes under legislative attack? Get involved!

Sierra Club California is working very hard to protect CEQA, but needs help from the grassroots. We need to communicate directly with our state senators and Assembly Members, telling them that protecting CEQA is our highest priority and they should not be fooled by supposedly plausible arguments for “reform.” Emails are good. Letters are better. Telephone calls are good. Office visits are better. Tell your representatives that we need CEQA to make governments stop and think, to make agencies respond to substantive public comments, and to require the elimination of negative impacts whenever feasible. We can also make the same arguments in letters to the editor, and speak out in public whenever possible.

Because the California Environmental Quality Act is such an excellent law, we can protect it from damaging “reforms” that will destroy its benefits. But we will have to get involved.

WhatYouCanDo

Contact your assemblymember and state senator and ask them to protect CEQA.

by Gary Patton, Executive Committee, Sierra Club California.

Gary Patton is an environmental attorney and former Santa Cruz County supervisor.

reprinted from Redwood Needles, newsletter of the Sierra Club Redwood Chapter

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