The California Environmental Quality Act: A Vital tool for Economic and Environmental Progress

Forty years after passage of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), it’s become fashionable to bash the landmark law as a 1970’s relic that is ripe for reform.  Those who would limit the effectiveness of CEQA argue that the law is a “job killer” and an impediment to economic growth.  Overhaul CEQA to limit public participation, as a Republican-led business group recently demanded of Governor Brown and the legislature, and California’s economy will miraculously recover.

They couldn’t be more mistaken.

As President of the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California and Chair of California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE), no one is more interested in creating jobs for Californians than I am. But I’m not interested in creating just any jobs. I want the kind of safe, sustainable and skilled jobs that will support workers and their communities over the long-term, and that are critical to the State’s future.

Since 1997, when a coalition of building trades and utility unions came together to establish CURE, we have  done more to improve the safety and reduce the environmental impacts of new power plants than anyone in California. Through the CEQA process, CURE has helped to cut smog-forming pollutants in half, increased the use of recycled water for cooling systems and pushed for groundbreaking controls on toxic air pollution as the standard for all new power plants.

At the same time, we have worked with energy developers to address the socioeconomic impacts of new energy projects by ensuring that the industry hires local workers and maintains the wage standards and working conditions that workers have struggled for over many decades. We have secured more than 30 million hours of construction work for eight new solar plants and nine state-of-the-art natural gas fired plants that will be built over the next three years.  These are good-paying green jobs, with health benefits and a secure retirement for the highly skilled workforce needed to build and maintain the conventional and renewable energy plants that power this state’s economy.

CURE’s participation in the CEQA process benefits the communities in which we live, by guaranteeing sustainable construction practices that minimize harm to the local environment, in turn ensuring  long term sustainable development.  This is environmental democracy, giving those affected by development a voice in its design, and it is exactly what the authors of CEQA intended to guarantee.  

So why do our critics persist?

Those who would “reform” CEQA, and don’t kid yourselves, they intend to gut it, want to limit the rights of ordinary citizens and community and labor groups such as ours to have a voice in projects affecting their communities.  Leave it to the developers to police themselves, the reformers argue, and don’t stand in the way of progress.  

That’s not how democracy works.  In our country, every citizen and every group has the right to express their views to our government.  The drafters of CEQA knew this, and they intended CEQA to foster a free flow of information – the good and the bad about a project.  That way, our government decision makers could make the most informed decision.  

The “reformers” would deprive the agency of information in the name of progress.  Anyone that has an economic interest, like ensuring long-term, sustainable jobs and communities, would be silenced.  Developers could tell the agency what was in their economic interest, but no one else with an economic interest could speak up.  

And it is not only workers that would be silenced.  Salmon fishermen would not be allowed to point out the flaws in a timber harvest plan that destroys salmon runs.  Farmers would not be allowed to point out that a power plant using groundwater would dry up the wells they depend on to farm.  Local Main Street businesses would not be able to show how a new 24-hour big-box store would blight downtown small business.  All because the fishermen and farmers and businesses also have an economic stake in the environmental outcome.

For forty years, CEQA has given Californians a voice. It is rightly called the “Bill of Rights for an Environmental Democracy.” Limiting public participation under CEQA will do nothing to improve California’s economy. But it will do irreparable harm to its environment. It’s time for all of us who care about protecting jobs and protecting our communities to stand up and defend CEQA.

Bob Balgenorth is President of the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California and Chair of California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE)  

8 thoughts on “The California Environmental Quality Act: A Vital tool for Economic and Environmental Progress”

  1. CEQA has become a joke.

    Today in California, putting in a new bike line or adding safety equipment to a rail crossing requires an expensive environmental review process that costs millions of dollars. Google it.

    No one thinks CEQA needs to be reformed because it’s a 1970s relic. The truth is that it’s an extremely vague law with no concrete objectives which has been interpreted as a general purpose NIMBY tool to block projects they don’t like.

    The text of CEQA doesn’t define what type of environmental analysis should be performed, what mitigations are necessary, or even what it means by “project” or “environment.”

    In some cases it blocks environmentally destructive projects (yay!), but in other cases it blocks sensible urban infill developments.

    Plenty of countries manage to protect their environment without such a vague, unwieldy law that anyone with a good lawyer can use to their advantage.

  2. As one who writes EIR’s and also reviews them for both cities and project proponents and as one who teaches university courses in it to aspiring Urban Planners, I disagree with the contention that CEQA is too vague.  The law and the Guidelines are very clear as to what is a project and, in most categories, the thresholds for potentially significant impact is also clear.

    However, the law does need some tweaks.  

    1.  There needs to be more encouragement to use focused EIR’s, especially in urban areas for infill projects.

    2.  The ability to tier off previous EIR’s needs to be made easier.  

    3.  The ability to file lawsuits needs to be tightened. Access to the courts is an important aspect of CEQA, but there are too many lawsuits being filed by those whose interest is other than ensuring proper enforcement of the law.  There needs to be a tightening of who has standing to file a suit and a tightening in the basis for which lawsuits are filed.

    4.  The new greenhouse gas emissions guidelines are far to vague.  I don’t think we have the science available yet to incorporate this into CEQA. CEQA needs to be as specific as possible as to what constitutes a potentially significant impact and what constitutes adequate mitigation.  We just aren’t there yet on green house emissions.

    5.  A section needs to be added to EIR’s and MND’s that calls for an analysis of the positive benefits of a project. As CEQA has evolved, it has become a long list of problems being created.  Since the CEQA document has become central to the entitlement/approval process and if one of the primary purposes of CEQA is to ensure the public and the decision makers are fully informed, then the positive impacts of a project should be in the same document as the negatives.      

  3. The labor unions as environmental champions?  Give me a break.  The unions use CEQA to take projects hostage until a project labor agreement is signed.  Once they get the PLA, the unions are nohwere to be found. The only green Bob is interested has a president’s face on it.  

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