California Can’t Reach Greenhouse-Gas Targets Without CEQA Reform
By Jim Wunderman, President and CEO of the Bay Area Council.
Meeting the new greenhouse-gas reduction targets set in Gov. Jerry Brown’s April executive order and Sen. Fran Pavley’s SB32 will require significant changes in the way California plans, lives and operates. We will need to focus on higher-density infill housing and commercial development closer to transit. We will need to place more emphasis on congestion-reduction projects, public transit, bike lanes and walkable neighborhoods. We will also need to move more rapidly to expand our sources of clean energy, such as wind and solar.
Ironically, one of the biggest obstacles to achieving the aggressive new targets likely will be California’s oldest environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act.
A groundbreaking report conducted by Holland & Knight, a law firm with extensive CEQA experience, analyzed 15 years of published opinions in CEQA litigation at the Court of Appeal or the California Supreme Court from 1997-2012. The report found that 62 percent of cases litigated under CEQA involved urban infill development. The analysis demonstrates how the environmental protection law actually is frustrating our greenhouse gas reduction goals by hindering infill development, more public transit and cleaner power.
Remarkably, these greenhouse-gas reducing projects are the very type of projects that anonymously funded opposition groups most frequently attempt to stop through time-consuming and expensive litigation. CEQA is their tool of choice, but environmental protection is not often their aim.
Cases in point:
- A single individual used a CEQA lawsuit to delay San Francisco’s plan to expand its network of bicycle lanes and encourage more bicycle commuting. The lawsuit claimed the city had not sufficiently studied the negative environmental impacts of the project. Five years, several million taxpayer dollars and 2,200 pages of environmental review later, the plan finally was approved.
- A neighborhood group used a CEQA lawsuit to further its antidevelopment agenda to block Park Merced, an affordable infill housing community in San Francisco set to become America’s first net-zero carbon community, with upgraded public transit access and on-site neighborhood-serving retail and services. The suit held up the project for three years, costing millions of dollars.
Another report by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office also points the finger of blame for California’s high housing costs squarely at CEQA. The report found that cities in California take on average 2.5 years to complete the various CEQA analyses required to permit new infill housing, and that’s before anyone files a lawsuit that can add many more years to the process.
The unfortunate reality is — for all the good it has done to improve the California environment and planning process — CEQA is being used to impede the type of responsible growth California needs in order to meet the new greenhouse-gas targets.
The governor’s ambitious executive order seeks to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, setting an interim target for the 2050 goal of 80 percent reduction set by Brown’s predecessor. Pavley’s bill codifies the new target. The Bay Area Council supported AB 32 in 2006 and supports SB 32 if amended to include CEQA reforms among other changes.
CEQA was written in the 1960s before we knew what climate change was. It is designed to analyze individual projects, not address a global threat. It’s time to modernize CEQA so that it is used to protect the environment, not to protect hidden agendas that have nothing to do with environmental protection.
Jim Wunderman is president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a regional business association.