Brown Signs Controversial CEQA Bills Among Fanfare… and Dissent

Last week, at theLos AngelesConvention Center, Governor Jerry Brown signed two bills with the aim of streamlining the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  One of the bills, SB 292 (Padilla) provides preferential treatment for the construction of an NFL stadium in downtownLos Angeles. In exchange for developer AEG committing to certain mitigation measures up-front, any CEQA challenge to the project would bypass the traditional route of Superior Court. Such a challenge would instead go directly to the Court of Appeals, which would then have 175 days to render a final decision. AB 900 (Buchanan) would provide similar judicial streamlining to massive ($100M+) infrastructure projects that the Governor signs off on.

The Planning and Conservation League opposed both bills. While it may seem innocuous, the judicial streamlining could undermine public input and proper court review for these projects, while further stressingCalifornia’s already over-burdened judicial system. Without robust court review of CEQA cases – which often provides the greatest leverage for community groups looking to safeguard local air and water quality – one can imagine situations where agencies and project proponents undertake less stringent environment review without fear of negative repercussions afforded by judicial review.

The rushed process that was used to approve these bills (both of which were introduced with less than a week left in the legislative session by ‘gutting-and-amending’ other legislation) also didn’t allow for proper vetting and could lead to unintended consequences. Several experts have already questioned whether these bills would hold up to a constitutional challenge, which could result in a lengthy court case…the opposite of what the bills’ authors and proponents were seeking to achieve. 

Perhaps most disappointing was the Governor’s rhetoric when signing these bills among significant fanfare, celebrating the worrisome precedent SB 292 and AB 900 have created. Railing that “[t]here are too many damn regulations” and that these bills were needed to get people to work, the Governor reinforced the oft-repeated mischaracterization that environmental and community protection are contrary to economic development while ignoring the fact that it is rarely these safeguards that stall projects. Setting himself up as the ultimate ‘decider’ of what is a good environmental project affords the Governor too much power; while allowing wealthy, influential corporations to tinker with the laws that apply to them whenever they are inconvenient opens up a floodgate of possible special exemptions that can harm California’s environment, undermine our quality of life and even threaten our long-term economic health. 

PCL appreciates that CEQA is not sacrosanct – like any law, it should be assessed and, if needed, altered to achieve its intended goals. And we are sympathetic the intent of the legislation – to promote infill and renewable energy projects and provide desperately needed jobs for Californians – though we are skeptical that the approach taken will actually yield those results. We look forward to working with the Governor and Legislature on solutions that we all agree will put Californians back to work in quality jobs while safeguarding our natural resources and communities…and doing so in a deliberative and thoughtful manner that doesn’t confuse activity for achievement.