If the Legislature approves the sweeping proposals to reform a landmark environmental law that Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed Friday, industry groups and developers may have one less roadblock to face in constructing ambitious projects, including affordable housing and critical infrastructure.
But if the concerns of environmentalists go unaddressed, the state may set off a new series of environmental quagmires in its quest to build, build, build.
As reported by the CalMatters team, Newsom announced a package of legislative measures and signed an executive order on Friday. His goal: Speed up big infrastructure projects by limiting the time opponents can obstruct projects in court with challenges under the California Environmental Quality Act, also known as CEQA.
Some of the proposals include:
- Limit the amount of time courts have to weigh challenges to nine months;
- Provide more funding to agencies to speed up reviews;
- Carve out more exemptions in the law so that favored projects can skip certain reviews.
California passed the law in 1970 following a rise of environmental conservation in the public consciousness. Since its enactment, neighborhood groups often used it to thwart big projects in nearby areas, and labor groups found the law useful to block projects in order to gain union-friendly concessions.
Business Interests Cite ‘CEQA Abuse’
For decades, business interests have decried “CEQA abuse.” But in recent years, CEQA reform has garnered more liberal support as climate change becomes the prevailing environmental issue and renewable energy projects are seen as one of its major solutions.
Senate Republicans celebrated Newsom’s announcement on Friday, saying they are thrilled that the governor “is finally taking action.”
- Senate GOP leader Brian Jones from El Cajon, in a statement: “We remain eager to collaborate with the governor… to fix California with solutions that address our state’s myriad issues ranging from homelessness to housing to water infrastructure.”
Environmental Groups React
Reactions from environmental groups varied. The Sierra Club said it supports Newsom’s desire for more clean infrastructure, but that the proposal “needs a lot of work.” Meanwhile, Restore the Delta said in a statement that “we have never been more disappointed in a California governor than we are with Gov. Newsom.”
The concerns about unfettered development, as well as the hidden pitfalls of clean energy projects, are not without merit.
As the state marches toward putting more electric vehicles on the road, mining for lithium and producing electric batteries can cause their own set of harmful environmental impacts (such as triggering earthquakes) as well as unsafe labor conditions. Solar farms sprawled out in California deserts can disrupt sensitive wildlife and lead to health issues for nearby residents.
It’s too early to tell if the governor’s policies will ultimately pass the legislative process. Lawmakers still need to iron out details and the reforms will undoubtedly face challenges from CEQA supporters. Nevertheless, Newsom highlighted the possible impacts if his proposals are implemented.
- Newsom, during a meeting with the California Chamber of Commerce on Thursday: “If we get nothing else done in the next three years, this may be one of the most consequential things that we can actually deliver.”
About the Author
Lynn La is the WhatMatters newsletter writer. Prior to joining CalMatters, she developed thought leadership at an ed-tech company and was a senior editor at CNET. She also covered public health at The Sacramento Bee as a Kaiser media fellow and was an intern reporter at Capitol Weekly. She’s a graduate of UC Davis and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.