One of the useful, if frustrating, aspects of the California Economic Summit’s state capitol conference earlier this month was listening to some lawmakers defend the California environmental quality act (CEQA). It’s universally considered to be a needlessly complex and economically damaging impediment to any kind of infrastructure project. Except by environmentalists and their allies in the legislature.
The core argument in favor of CEQA in its current form is that even though it’s cumbersome, it has saved California’s signature natural assets – you get the idea it’s the only thing standing between the redwoods and a horde of chainsaw wielding loggers. And it’s true, CEQA has legitimately protected valuable resources. But it’s an indiscriminate weapon – the logic is essentially if you shoot them all, you’re sure to get the guilty.
The problem isn’t so much that the law aspires to high standards, but that it creates a battle ground for anyone to launch a never ending fight against infrastructure projects on the flimsiest basis. Any decision made by elected or appointed officials or agency staff can be taken to court on the basis of CEQA. Because of that, staff will frequently take a CYA approach up front – no one wants to be on the chopping block when challenges come in.
And it’s not always clear who takes the lead. Public agencies frequently arm wrestle over who has jurisdiction, if not for an entire project, at least for particular aspects of it. The Digital 395 project in eastern California is a case study: a $100 million fiber optic project that had to navigate more than 40 agencies and ended up exceeding its permit-processing budget by $25 million.
There won’t be any changes this year – the legislature’s term is all but wrapped up. But expect a renewed push to reform CEQA next year, hopefully, with better results.