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Sunsets create a nightly spectacle on the California coast near Jenner. The ornamental pampas grass in the foreground is a common sight along the coast. (Allen Holder/Kansas City Star)

For the past 40 years, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) has served as a vital tool to protect our environment by ensuring that all proposed local development projects undergo a rigorous environmental review process and that the impacts of new projects on the environment are adequately mitigated.

However, like most tools that are 40 years old, today's CEQA needs to be modernized to ensure that this policy is working in concert with the more than 100 other environmental laws and regulations that have been added since its inception.

In fact in his State of the State speech Gov. Jerry Brown cited CEQA reform specifically as an area for regulatory reform. The governor said, "Our approach needs to be based more on consistent standards that provide greater certainty and cut needless delays." We agree!

The Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce is part of a broad coalition representing business, labor, schools, hospitals, clean tech, transit, affordable housing and other organizations that are pushing for moderate reforms to CEQA that will preserve its original intent -- environmental protection and public disclosure -- while eliminating some of the misuses of CEQA that hurt job creation, community renewal and our environment.

In the 40 years since CEQA was passed, Congress and the Legislature have adopted more than 120 laws to protect the environment including air quality, water quality, species protection, greenhouse gas reduction, responsible land-use planning and more. However, CEQA has not received a major update in that time to take these new laws into account. As a result, many environmentally desirable projects are being held-up by unnecessary CEQA lawsuits -- even when a project complies with all of California's other toughest-in-the-nation environmental laws and standards.


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Compliance with California's stringent environmental standards should mean something, but instead, today in California, CEQA is being used to stop projects that "play by the rules" and comply with all applicable standards -- many times causing delays and increased taxpayer costs and sometimes even killing good projects altogether.

In fact, according to a recent analysis by the Thomas Law Group, even when a project undergoes an extensive and costly full-blown environmental impact report (EIR), the project is rejected 50 percent of the time when a court challenge is brought under CEQA.

No public or private business can adequately plan with 50/50 chance of being stopped by a lawsuit -- in effect a coin toss when millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars and jobs are on the line.

Too often, CEQA lawsuits and the mere threat of litigation harm the type of local community renewal and environmentally desirable economic growth we need.

Our coalition is pushing an agenda that will modernize CEQA. Under this reform:

  • CEQA would continue to serve as the primary environmental policy to ensure that all projects are meeting federal, state, and local environmental laws, regulations and zoning and planning.

  • CEQA would continue to mandate comprehensive environmental review, disclosure and informed public debate for all environmental impacts of any proposed development.

  • State agencies, local governments and other lead agencies would continue to retain their existing authority to reject projects, or to set conditions for project approvals and impose mitigation measures that go above and beyond the law.

  • When a project has met all required state, federal and local environmental laws, regulations, and planning, zoning and land-use requirements, a CEQA lawsuit could not be brought to force additional requirements through the courts that go above and beyond what's been required by the law.

  • Project opponents could still challenge whether lead agencies complied with the procedural requirements of CEQA, and opponents could also sue to ensure projects mitigate significant adverse environmental impacts not subject to local, state or federal laws and regulations.

    While the reform process will include a great variety of voices, people on all sides can agree that, after 40 years, there are important improvements that can be made to CEQA. Any update to the law must preserve the foundation of the law -- environmental protection and public disclosure — while reducing abuses of the process for reasons that have nothing to do with the environment and jeopardize economic growth and environmental leadership.

    Joseph J. Haraburda is president/CEO of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce.