Last-Minute ‘Assault’ on CEQA Dies

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – The state Senate killed a last-minute effort to overhaul the California Environmental Quality Act — an effort an environmental group called an “assault” on the law known as CEQA.
     Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and state Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Shafter, said the Legislature would abandon efforts to push through CEQA reform before the end of the legislative session.
     Environmentalists celebrated.
     “We are glad to hear … that the last-minute assault on California’s bedrock Environmental Quality Act has been called off for the year,” Natural Resources Defense Counsel senior attorney David Pettit said in a statement.
     Endorsed by a coalition of business and labor groups and sponsored by Rubio and Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, the bill was proposed as an amendment to Rubio’s Senate Bill 317 in August 2011.
     S.B. 317 initially dealt with adding a section on fishery management to the state Fish and Game Code. But lawmakers turned it into a CEQA reform bill, replacing its original contents in a method known as “gut and amend.”
     CEQA, enacted in 1970, requires, among other things, that state and local agencies analyze a project’s potential environmental impact, and identify feasible mitigation measures to reduce harm.
     Projects now are analyzed based on 84 criteria and 17 areas of environmental concern, including effects upon water, air quality, plant and animal life, hazardous materials and traffic.
     The Legislature has enacted more than 100 environmental laws since CEQA. Many are more stringent than mandated by federal law.
     S.B. 317 claimed that federal laws are better at ensuring environmental compliance than CEQA.
     “Environmental laws and regulations identify compliance obligations that apply uniformly to similarly situated projects and activities … and thereby provide greater clarity than the project-by-project ad hoc review process that was created for CEQA in 1970,” the bill states.
     The bill criticized CEQA for forcing lead agencies on projects to conduct duplicate environmental impact studies and mitigation analyses.
     “Duplicate CEQA review of projects that comply with the density, use type, and intensity requirements of land use plans that have already undergone an EIR [environmental impact report] process was not intended by the Legislature and creates unacceptable delays and uncertainties in the plan implementation process,” the bill stated.
     “Avoidance of duplicative review will reduce litigation and the considerable political uncertainty that has resulted for communities and project proponents who attempt to implement land use plans, notwithstanding previously disclosed significant unavoidable urbanized impacts.”
     Natural Resources Defense Counsel spokeswoman Jessica Lass disagreed.
     “The latest proposal would have eliminated CEQA review for projects that comply with local planning and zoning codes,” Lass said in an email to Courthouse News.
     “Many communities have low or outdated planning and development standards and residents who live in those areas would lose the ability to ask for measures to mitigate things like traffic and air pollution.”
     S.B. 317 claimed it would “further the purposes of CEQA” by narrowing its scope.
     It also proposed to limit the kinds of legal challenges that could be brought against projects, prohibiting causes of action against projects under CEQA if the project complied with environmental laws and land-use permitting.
     “It would have allowed major projects to bypass aspects of our state environmental law, not holding large projects to the same standards they are held to today,” Lass wrote. “There would be fewer checks and balances for industry and developers to ensure their projects do not harm public health and the environment.”
     Pettit agreed.
     “Putting pollution and industry first has never been a winning strategy for California and does not position us to take advantage of the clean energy economy that continues to be the fastest-growing source of jobs in the state,” Pettit said in his statement.

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