San Diego Union Tribune, Column, Steven Greenhut, “Climate bill may chill new infrastructure”, 9/4/15

Business and labor fear new greenhouse-gas targets put them in crosshairs

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature are wrangling over a new transportation plan to help the state meet its growing population, with the differences centering on whether to raise taxes — or focus on reforming the existing transportation bureaucracy — to assure projects aren’t delayed. That’s the hot Capitol debate these days.

But at the same time this transportation session does its work, legislators are moving ahead major climate-change bills that could slow major infrastructure projects in the future, although newly introduced amendments could lessen the blow.

The most climate-change attention has gone to SB 350, which would mandate a 50-percent reduction in petroleum use, a 50-percent increase in energy efficiency in buildings and 50-percent use of renewable energy by utilities — all by 2030. But another bill is causing more consternation to business and trade unions.

SB 32, authored by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, advances the state’s original anti-global-warming law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 (AB 32). “AB 32 requires California to reduce its (greenhouse gas) emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 — a reduction of approximately 15 percent below emissions expected under a ‘business as usual’ scenario,” according to the California Air Resources Board, which gained power to impose reductions under the original law and would gain more under the new proposals.

Similarly named SB 32 steps up the goals, by mandating these greenhouse-gas emissions are 40 percent below the 1990 level by 2030 and 80 percent below that level by 2050. Critics say these mandated reductions have diminishing returns — e.g., it’s easier for a dieter to lose the first few pounds, but tougher to lose additional pounds as the weight decreases.

But the biggest problem may involve the impact on transportation and home-building, given the Legislature has yet to reform its infamous California Environmental Quality Act. The 40-year-old CEQA is the subject of endless Capitol debates given that it makes it easy for opponents of virtually any construction project to file time-consuming litigation.

It’s often abused, as unions threaten lawsuits unless they get Project Labor Agreements, businesses file lawsuits to hobble the competition, and local activists file lawsuits against any projects they don’t like. Proof of CEQA’s problem: Even environmentally friendly politicians seek CEQA exemptions for their pet projects, such as the arena being built for the Sacramento Kings basketball team. Legislators from both parties complain about it.

The CEQA Working Group — business, labor and local government groups — sent a letter late last month to Pavley opposing SB 32 “for the sole reason that it would vastly expand opportunities for litigation under CEQA and it would create an impossible threshold to meet under CEQA.” Their concern is critics of any project proposed now — even green-friendly ones for, say, infill housing — would have to immediately “prove themselves to meet the year 2050 80 percent reduction goal today.”

That sounds like a scare tactic, until one looks at their main evidence: The San Diego Association of Governments regional plan “has been in CEQA litigation for years over a complaint (upheld by a lower court) that the plan does not meet the (greenhouse-gas) reduction requirements of a 2005 executive order … . Clearly, a more ambitious statute like SB 32 would create (an) even greater legal bar to meet under CEQA.”

In this case, environmental groups are using CEQA and long-term global-warming goals to force the San Diego agency to reduce freeway construction and focus instead on mass transit. More aggressive targets will give litigants better ammunition.

In response, Pavley’s office on Friday announced amendments intended to do the following: The California Air Resource Board “is required to work with builders, local governments, others to ensure that land use and permitting decisions on new construction are not subject to 2050 target on Day 1.”

Critics of the bill fear the amendments won’t provide enough specific direction and they will still end up in court. It would be ironic to have state leaders asking Californians to pay more to help reduce congestion as they simultaneously make it tougher for congestion-busting projects to get built.

Greenhut is the San Diego Union-Tribune’s California columnist.

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