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Environmental law has the potential to derail projects

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Forget hypothetical situations

The term “CEQA reform” is one heard a lot these days, with Gov. Jerry Brown referring to it in his State of the State address and groups already lining up to prevent changes to the law. But what is CEQA? And does it need to be reformed?

CEQA refers to the California Environmental Quality Act — a law passed in 1970 and signed by Gov. Ronald Regan that is supposed to protect the environment from damage due to development and construction. Under the law, projects can be forced to complete extensive studies and change plans, occasionally ending projects altogether. Critics say it is abused and prevents needed projects — even environmentally beneficial projects.

The way it is structured, CEQA is a state law, but it is administered by local governments. Localities decide which projects have a “substantial economic impact” — those that do are required to do complete an (often very costly) environmental impact report. The developer may have to amend their plans based on the report. Critics of the current system say that the definition of “substantial” is murky and not objective, and it varies from place to place around the state.

Also, because anyone can file a complaint, it is sometimes invoked by people who are simply anti-change, and labor unions have used the law to delay nonunion development — famously Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento.

Efforts to reform CEQA are as old as the law itself, but there’s a pressing new reason for reform: high-speed rail. Democrats — especially Brown — want to see this project move forward but know that it can be delayed for many years at a cost of many millions on environmental grounds. At his recent State of the State address, the governor said, “We … need to rethink and streamline our regulatory procedures, particularly the California Environmental Quality Act. Our approach needs to be based more on consistent standards that provide greater certainty and cut needless delays.”

Then just last week, a bipartisan group of former governors — George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis — wrote in an editorial in The Sacramento Bee saying. “CEQA has stood in the way of renewable-energy projects, infill housing, schools, hospitals, universities, public transit and needed infrastructure.”

As you might imagine, labor unions and environmental groups like the Sierra Club are defending the status quo, pointing out that the law as it is currently written has done a lot of good and prevented politicians from allowing regrettable construction. They also point out that hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, to extract petrochemicals is on the rise, and we need controls now more than ever.

Unions and environmentalists are traditionally well-organized and have a strong voice in the Democratic Party, so there’s no guarantee that meaningful CEQA reform will be a reality or if the governor will just find a way to exempt high-speed rail from the law. Notably, the governor couldn’t get such an exemption through the Legislature last year, but this year’s big class of Democratic freshmen might be more receptive. Especially with Texas Gov. Rick Perry sniffing around, trying to poach jobs from California and citing our onerous environmental regulations as grounds for moving out of state.

Melissa Griffin’s column runs each Thursday and Sunday. She also appears Mondays in “Mornings with Melissa” at 6:45 a.m. on KPIX (Ch. 5). Email her at mgriffin@sfexaminer.com.

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