Public Comment

Reforms For CEQA? – Watch Out!

By Gary Patton
Monday February 11, 2013 - 12:41:00 PM

You have probably heard talk about “reforming” the California Environmental Quality Act. My advice? “Watch out!” The bill language proposed in the last two weeks of the legislative session last year would have eliminated all the benefits of California’s most important environmental law. When widespread “fracking” is on the horizon; when global warming and its impacts are ever more real; when water supplies are diminishing, and when huge and costly infrastructure projects (including desalination) are under consideration at the state and local level, this is not the time to weaken laws that protect our environmental quality. 

Here are the three main things that the California Environmental Quality Act actually does. First, it makes government “stop and think” before it acts. Often, governmental officials decide that they really have a good idea, and want to push it through. In Santa Cruz, the proposed desalination plant comes to mind. The California Environmental Quality Act makes governmental agencies go through a process that fully analyzes the pros and cons. This means that the government sometimes changes its mind, precisely because of the new information generated in the environmental review process. Often, the changes are improvements, so projects are made better. That is what has been happening for more than forty years, thanks to the California Environmental Quality Act. There are countless examples. Unless you think that state and local government officials always “know best,” and shouldn’t have to “stop and think” about their plans, you will not want to weaken CEQA. 

Second, the California Environmental Quality Act gives ordinary members of the public real power in the project approval process. Without CEQA, members of the public get two or three minutes at the podium, and their remarks are then routinely ignored by the local officials who are often not even listening. If you have ever been to a public agency meeting, you know what I am talking about! The California Environmental Quality Act requires the public agency to respond substantively to all comments that the public makes, and the courts will find an agency’s Environmental Impact Report or EIR inadequate if substantive responses are not provided. CEQA is the only California law that makes governmental agencies respond to public concerns in a substantive way. 

Third, the California Environmental Quality Act includes a “substantive mandate.” If an Environmental Impact Report identifies a measure that could eliminate or lessen a negative impact, the governmental agency is required to implement that measure. For instance, if an EIR says that a left turn lane is needed to go into a new development, to reduce traffic impacts, the developer must put it in. Only CEQA requires this kind of substantive mitigation. CEQA’s substantive mandate costs the developers money, and makes sure that the true cost of projects is borne by those who get the benefits, not by the public at large. In fact, this is the main reason that business and development interests are attacking the California Environmental Quality Act. They don’t want to pay for required mitigations. 

Usually, Governors belonging to the Democratic Party support the protection of our environment as a high priority, and thus they support CEQA. Our current Governor does not, because he does not want to “stop and think” about projects like his high‑speed rail boondoggle. He knows he is right! 

If you want your government to stop and think, and to provide substantive responses to public concerns, and if you want developers to pay for required mitigations, then watch out for those so‑called CEQA “reforms.” They are trying to take away one of the best laws we have ever had! 

Gary Patton is an environmental attorney. He served on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors for twenty years, from 1975 to 1995. He is also a member of the Executive Committee of Sierra Club California.