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Is it time to scale back California’s environmental law?

Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park
Kevin Moore/flickr
Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park

Sacramento is abuzz this week over what not might at first seem like a sexy subject: the state’s environmental regulation, called the California Environmental Quality Act.

Sacramento is abuzz this week over what not might at first seem like a sexy subject: the state’s environmental regulation. Just after the EPA was created forty two years ago, California passed the most stringent state law to safeguard the environment.

The California Environmental Quality Act or CEQA as it’s commonly called, intentionally slows developers down. New projects must disclose the impacts they’ll have — like noise, pollution, and traffic—and take steps to mitigate those negative effects. Now, business groups say the law, while well-intentioned, is out of date. The state has passed over 100 environmental statutes since the ‘70s and CEQA is no longer needed.

President and CEO of the LA Chamber of Commerce, Gary Toebben, supports changing CEQA and says that it has allowed businesses to become common targets of non-environmental lawsuits.

“This legislation does not lower any environmental standards in our state and it does not exempt any projects from these environmental standards,” Toebben said. He explained that the bill would only stop people from abusing CEQA for their own gains.

Those who support changing CEQA often complain that the rules are too complex. The regulation costs money and jobs, and contributes to the sense that California is hostile to business.

But, environmental groups counter, this is a cheap attempt to use the bad economy as an excuse to save money and time at the cost of average citizens. Lawmakers have been waiting to see whether a bill would be introduced that could be passed quickly, before the state legislature adjourns, August 31.

State Senator Michael Rubio complied Wednesday night, turning his bill about King River fisheries into an echo of the talking points that have been circulating the capital.

Opponents to the change, like the senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, David Pettit believe that by affecting CEQA’s mitigation process, the bill proposed by Senator Rubio, SB 317, would only weaken the states environmental policies.

“The proposals would gut CEQA. It would cut the heart out of CEQA. The desire to eliminate lawsuits for non-environmental reasons...[the] Rubio proposal has nothing to do with that,” Pettit said, “If that’s a change people wanted it, it’s easily done and it can be done in a regular session with committee hearings and not rushed through at the last minute.”

He point out CEQA’s mitigation requirement was much more stringent than any other state or federal law, and empowers people to take on developers in their area who may be responsible for such things as increased air pollution.

But Toebben was vehement that Pettit had entirely misread and misunderstood SB 317 bill.

“The thing about this if [environmental policy is] covered in any other part of the law [that] the legislators or local city council members have written, it will still be covered,” Toebben said. “It will not allow people to file frivolous lawsuits that have nothing to do with the environment.”

Ideas that companies when approaching development projects would operate as if by a “checklist,” focusing on local and zoning laws without considering bi-products of development like air quality was a “bogus claim,” he said.

Pettit acknowledged that abuses can and do occur — although he claims they are rare — when it comes to CEQA, but that such abuses occur in all realms of the law.

Weigh In:

Would this proposal streamline or gut the landmark law? What do you think? Is it time to scale back environmental regulation? And if so, does it need to happen right away? Or should our state representatives wait until next term?


David Pettit, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council; supported speeding up CEQA requirements for LA football stadium project; but opposes current efforts to change the law

Gary Toebben, President and CEO of the LA Chamber of Commerce; member of the CEQA Working Group which is pushing for changes

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