40-year-old environmental law has morphed into something other than it was intended
By Cynthia Murray
Most people would agree that if a school, hospital or road project has been subjected to extensive environmental review and met all federal, state and local environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act, the project should go forward without being sued for purported environmental reasons. Unfortunately, today, these projects are being delayed and face increased costs – many times to taxpayers – or killed altogether because of abusive litigation that has nothing to do with the environment.
For the past 40 years, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) has served as a vital tool to protect our environment by ensuring that all development projects undergo a rigorous environmental review and that impacts on the environment are mitigated.
However, like most tools that are 40-years old, today’s CEQA needs to be modernized to ensure that this policy is working in tandem with the myriad of other environmental laws and regulations that have been added since its inception.
North Bay Leadership Council (NBLC) is part of a broad coalition representing business, labor, schools, hospitals, clean tech, transit, affordable housing and other organizations that are pushing for moderate reforms to CEQA that will preserve its original intent – environmental protection and public disclosure – while eliminating some of the misuses of CEQA that hurt job creation, community renewal and our environment.
In the 40 years since CEQA was passed, Congress and the Legislature have adopted more than 120 laws to protect the environment including air quality, water quality, species protection, greenhouse gas reduction, responsible land-use planning and more. However, CEQA has not received a major update to take these new laws into account. As a result, many environmentally desirable projects are being held-up by abusive CEQA lawsuits – even when a project complies with all of California’s other toughest-in-the-nation environmental laws and standards.
Compliance with California’s stringent environmental standards should mean something, but instead, CEQA is being abused to stop projects that “play by the rules” and comply with all applicable standards—causing delays of years and increased taxpayer costs and sometimes even killing good projects altogether.
In fact, according to a recent analysis of reported court decisions by the Thomas Law Group, even when a project undergoes an extensive and costly full-blown Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the project is rejected 50 percent of the time when a court challenge is brought under CEQA. No public or private business can adequately plan with 50/50 chance of being stopped by a lawsuit – an effective coin toss when millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars and jobs are on the line.
Too often, CEQA lawsuits and the mere threat of litigation harm the type of local community renewal and environmentally desirable economic growth we need. For instance, Lucasfilm’s Grady Ranch project, was abandoned by the proponent due to the threat of a CEQA challenge, costing Marin County hundreds of well-paying jobs and other economic benefits. Rather than being used to protect valuable environmental resources, CEQA is routinely used to achieve results that have nothing to do with the environment or sound planning.
To stop this misuse, our coalition strongly supports an update that will modernize CEQA.
Under this reform:
- CEQA would continue to serve as the principal environmental law to ensure that all projects are meeting federal, state, and local environmental laws, regulations and zoning and planning.
- CEQA would continue to mandate comprehensive environmental review, disclosure and informed public debate for all environmental impacts of any proposed development.
- State agencies, local governments and other lead agencies would continue to retain their existing authority to reject projects, or to condition project approvals and impose mitigation measures that go above and beyond the law.
- When a project has met all required state, federal and local environmental laws, regulations, and planning, zoning and land-use requirements, a CEQA lawsuit cannot be brought to force additional requirements through the courts that go above and beyond what’s been required by the law.
- Project opponents could still sue or challenge whether lead agencies complied with the procedural requirements of CEQA, and opponents could also sue to ensure projects mitigate significant adverse environmental impacts not subject to local, state or federal laws and regulations.
Stakeholders on all sides agree that, after 40 years, there are important improvements that can be made to CEQA. These reforms must retain the foundation of the law – public disclosure and environmental protection – while limiting misuses for reasons that have nothing to do with the environment and jeopardize economic growth and environmental leadership.
Sadly, CEQA has become the best tool for opponents to stop projects. Our goal is to return it to its intended purpose of protecting the environment.
North Bay Leadership Council is an employer-led public policy advocacy organization committed to providing leadership in ways to make the North Bay sustainable, prosperous and innovative. The Council includes 44 leading employers in the region. Our members represent a wide variety of businesses, non-profits and educational institutions, with a workforce in excess of 25,000. For more information, contact Cynthia Murray at (707) 283-0028 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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