Credit Crisis: Governor Should Reject Legislature’s Attack on CEQA, Clean Air

Late last month, opponents of environmental protection scored a major victory. In the last few hours of the session, the Legislature passed SB 827 (Wright) to allow the South Coast Air Quality Management District (District) to disregard previous court decisions and run roughshod over the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), weakening air quality protections in the most polluted air basin in the country.
Chapter I: Southern California
Under the federal Clean Air Act, the District is required to set up a system of air pollution credits to ensure that emissions from sources likepower plants and refineries do not impede efforts to meet clean air requirements. However, the District failed to ensure that its pollution credit system complied with federal law, leading to a shortfall of available credits. What’s worse, when the courts ruled that the District needed to do a full environmental review of its permitting system, the District went on the offensive, refusing to issue credits to small businesses and key public service providers like fire stations and hospitals.

Chapter II: The Capitol

Instead of simply complying with state and federal air quality laws, the District marched off to the Legislature to “resolve the situation.” There, several key legislators including Senator Joe Simitian and Senator Alan Lowenthal brokered a compromise to allow the District to issue permits for small businesses and essential services. However, in the final hours of the session Senator Wright and the District backed out of the compromise, quickly amending SB 827 to exempt the District from conducting the required environmental review process and rammed the measure through both houses of the Legislature.

Chapter III: The Governor’s Office

Now environmental and public health groups from across the state are calling on Governor Schwarzenegger to veto SB 827, and for good reason. First, the measure interferes in pending litigation, which clearly violates the separation of powers inherent in our constitution. Second, ignoring CEQA will increase air pollution, leading to severe impacts to public health. Lastly, because the bill was so hastily amended, it will likely lead to more litigation and confusion, exacerbating the crisis of a dysfunctional credit system in the South Coast Air basin.
The District already has a clear path forward: do the environmental review the courts required. That would resolve the situation without worsening the basin’s horrible air quality. A veto is the clear solution.