News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Report: CEQA Helping, Not Hindering Renewable Development

California's environment and economy can be healthy together | Photo: Don Barrett/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), California's landmark environmental law, has taken a lot of heat lately with accusations that special interests have used the law to obstruct necessary projects, including those devoted to renewable energy. But a new report released this month says that far from hindering the development of a new, greener infrastructure for the state, CEQA may have actually promoted such development compared to states with far less stringent environmental laws.

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Criticism of CEQA often focuses on its alleged use by parochial, NIMBYist interests to block projects on technicalities, and the claimed tortuous legal process that large projects must undertake. That criticism has found a sympathetic ear in California Governor Jerry Brown, who has adopted dismantling some CEQA provisions as a personal goal. Brown recently pushed for and signed AB 900, which law mandates that legal challenges to certain kinds of projects under CEQA must go directly to the Court of Appeals. (One of the first large projects to qualify for that expedited legal review, the McCoy Solar Energy Project, was given the thumbs up Wednesday by the federal government.)

Brown has also endorsed the idea of loosening CEQA's prohibition on "piecemealing" environmental assessment of a project. Under CEQA, all environmental impacts of a project must be assessed up front: a developer cannot defer assessing part of the project they have in mind until a later date. Developers claim that assessing the entirety of a huge project is an undue burden, and claim that if they can't release Environmental Impact Reviews on each stage of a project, that stifles project development.

The report, "The Economic and Environmental Impact of the California Environmental Quality Act" written by Peter Philips of the University of Utah's Economics Department, studies CEQA's role in phasing out coal-fired generation of power in California, greening the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and discouraging the use of water-intensive wet-cooled power plants in inland California. The study found that since the passage of CEQA in 1970, the state has actually built non-coal-fired power generation more rapidly than other states.

As it turns out, according to Philips' study, the prohibition on piecemealing is one of CEQA's strengths. The wholistic approach the law requires, Philips' water-cooling case study showed, forced the California Energy Commission and the State Water Resources Board to come to the table to look at the Big Picture of water cooling in CEQA review of a single gas-fired plant, eventually saving the state more than 100,000 acre-feet of water that had been used to cool inland power plants over the years. The same "big-picture" view helped bring diverse parties together to work out a greener future for the two ports studied.

Philips also found that the state's economy has also grown more rapidly since CEQA was passed than it did in years before. According to the report's abstract,

Comparing California before and after the 1970 passage of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and benchmarking against performance in the other 49 states, this study finds that 1) California per capita GDP, 2) California housing relative to population, 3) California manufacturing output and 4)California construction activity grew as fast or faster after the passage of CEQA.

In January 2013, says the report, California was generating 36 percent of all solar-generated electricity in the U.S., and additional solar capacity under construction in the state amounted to 77 percent of all U.S. projects in the pipeline: not what you'd expect were CEQA effectively strangling new project development in the cradle. What's more, proposed power plants outside the state were cancelled three times as often from 2001-2011 as they were in "heavily regulated" California.

Two paragraphs from the conclusion of the report's Executive Summary bear reposting in full:

CEQA is a process. It provides stakeholders and the public legal standing in the process of permitting the construction of projects that hold the potential of having a negative environmental impact. CEQA requires the creation of an environmental impact report designed to identify the environmental costs of the project. The public is invited to evaluate, criticize and add to the preliminary environmental report so that a better and fuller understanding of the environmental costs of a project can be added to the more easily obtained market costs of the project. In this manner, decision makers obtain a complete accounting of the true overall economic costs of the project where environmental costs of all sorts are part of the fuller picture of economic costs. This then allows developers, the public and regulators to better understand where the project is taking all of us and whether other paths or other ways of going down the proposed path make sense.

CEQA has benefitted the California environment without hampering economic development. There is no mystery in this fact even though to some this result seems like a paradox. Ultimately, economic development is a process of picking and choosing among competing paths forward. Fully informed choices about which path to take are always better than choices made with limited or partial or misleading information. On a project-by-project basis, CEQA makes for better choices by letting more voices be heard, putting more information on the table, and letting a fuller calculation of the true price of each project and its alternatives be considered.

The report was released this week by Common Ground, a coalition of environmental and labor groups that's come together to advocate that CEQA be preserved and strengthened. The study was funded in part by a grant from the California Construction
Industry Labor Management Cooperation Trust.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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