Amended Senate Bill Takes on Too Much, Compromising CEQA and Community Safeguards

While the Legislature has taken its summer recess, and all appears quiet in the Capitol, there are still bills deserving of a watchful eye. Senate Bill 226 by State Senator Joseph Simitian, recently amended, is one such bill. This bill includes eight provisions that would streamline or simplify – or, some would argue, weaken – California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements for projects deemed environmentally sound, such as rooftop solar, large-scale renewable energy on degraded lands, and transit oriented development.

Before assessing these streamlining efforts, it is important to understand CEQA. For nearly 40 years, this landmark law has ensured that elected and agency officials have sufficient information on long-term environmental impacts of projects to make informed decisions, while also empowering local communities – many of which would otherwise be left out of the political process – to have a say in the decisions that will impact them and their families most directly.

Clearly, the Planning and Conservation League supports efforts to promote sustainable projects that will safeguard our environment, improve local communities, and promote good-paying green jobs. And much of what SB 226 aims to do is in line with these goals. However, CEQA represented a recognition that we don’t always understand – or agree on – the long-term impacts of projects. While infill development is good in general, this is only true if it is done in a way that does not place all the burdens – and few of the benefits – on underserved communities. Similarly, there is strong disagreement on whether industrial-scale renewable provides tremendous opportunity, or distracts us from better, distributed energy projects that could put even more people to work in local communities.

That is why CEQA requires decision-makers to compile information on each project, and engage impacted communities in this dialogue. By its very nature, CEQA seeks to slow the process to make sound decisions that are in the best long-term interest of our environment, communities and economy. 

That does not mean that CEQA is a perfect law, or that we shouldn’t regularly assess and fine-tune it to ensure it continues to benefitCalifornia. Only that such efforts should be undertaken carefully, and not be done in a way that assumes that we always know ‘the answer’ and therefore it is acceptable to erode the basic tenants of CEQA – informed decision-making and community engagement.

PCL does not doubt the intent of legislators, including Senator Simitian, who are seeking refinements to promote green projects. Senator Simitian is a long-time leader on environmental issues, as evidenced by his 98% lifetime pro-environment voting record according to the California League of Conservation Voters.

While well intentioned, however, SB 226 unfortunately seeks to do so much in some provisions, and falls short in others. It has the potential to limit community input in projects, and may make some unsustainable projects easier to develop without sufficient review.

PCL looks forward to working with Senator Simitian and any legislator interested in ensuring CEQA continue to play a critical role in helping transform California into a green technology leader that fosters good paying, green jobs throughout the state; safeguarding local communities and reducing public health impacts of pollution; and protecting our State’s invaluable natural resources for all present and future Californians to enjoy.