California's Democrats Act to Ease Environmental Law

By Nagourney, Adam | International Herald Tribune, September 12, 2013 | Go to article overview

California's Democrats Act to Ease Environmental Law


Nagourney, Adam, International Herald Tribune


A landmark environmental protection law in California is being challenged by Democrats, who concede that it has sometimes been misused to thwart projects.

A landmark law that has been a symbol of California's tough environmental philosophy for more than 40 years is facing an unlikely challenge from Democrats, including Governor Jerry Brown, who contend that regulations protecting the environment have been abused and are thwarting legitimate development.

With the Legislature moving toward adjournment this week, prospects of weakening the law, known as the California Environmental Quality Act, seem stronger than in recent memory, lawmakers said. Mr. Brown called rewriting the law "the Lord's work," and the effort has won widespread support from newspaper editorial boards.

Senator Darrell Steinberg, the Democratic leader, said Tuesday that he was confident that his proposed changes to the law would win legislative approval this week and be sent to Mr. Brown.

That said, the changes Mr. Steinberg is championing -- which include exempting urban projects from parking and aesthetic reviews, and speeding the pace of litigation -- are considerably short of the broader rollback of environmental reviews sought by business leaders.

The battle is coming to a head during a time in a legislative session inevitably marked by shifting allegiances and last-minute deal making. Business leaders who once described themselves as hopeful that California would pass major changes to the law are now declaring defeat, abandoning Mr. Steinberg and urging lawmakers to vote against his bill.

"This is not threading the needle," said Carl Guardino, president and chief executive of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a business organization. "These are steps backwards."

The bill is being supported by labor and environmental organizations, two key Democratic constituencies that have historically been fervent supporters of the existing law.

The California Environmental Quality Act requires rigorous reviews of the environmental impact of public and private construction projects, along with detailed plans on how to minimize it. It is repeatedly invoked in lawsuits to block or delay projects. Mr. Steinberg defended his legislation, which he described as "that sweet spot between those who think the statute is irrevocably broken and those who believe there's nothing wrong with the statute."

"A statute that is 40 years old and subject to some legitimate complaints about the ways it's used in some instance is due for a tuneup," he said.

That California is considering easing environmental regulations is striking. This state has been identified with some of the most aggressive environmental policies in the country, advanced by Democrats and Republicans.

The law in question was signed by Ronald Reagan, a Republican, when he was governor in 1970.

This year, the state Democratic Party adopted a resolution saying it stood "with the labor and environmental community" in opposing changes to the law. But environmental leaders said they were open to some changes.

"I think the Legislature and the governor are hungry to make some changes," said Ann Notthoff, the California advocacy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "And I think that's appropriate. …

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