The Time is Right to Modernize the California Environmental Quality Act

Most people would agree that if a school, hospital or road project had done extensive environmental review and met all state and local environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act, that the project should be allowed to go forward without being sued for purported environmental reasons. Unfortunately, today in California, these types of projects are being delayed and facing increased costs – many times to taxpayers – or killed altogether because of abusive litigation that frequently 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 proposed local development projects undergo a rigorous environmental review process and that the impacts of new projects on the environment are adequately 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 in that time 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, today in California, CEQA is being abused to stop projects that “play by the rules” and comply with all applicable standards—many times causing delays and increased taxpayer costs and sometimes even killing good projects altogether.

In fact, according to a recent analysis 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% 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 pulled by the proponent due to the threat of a CEQA challenge, costing Marin County hundreds of well-paying jobs and other economic benefits.

To stop this misuse, our coalition is pushing for an update of CEQA that will modernize CEQA.

Under this reform:

  • CEQA would continue to serve as the principle environmental policy 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 of the statute for reasons that have nothing to do with the environment and jeopardize economic growth and environmental leadership.

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