McCoy Solar Okayed for Legal Fast Track, Democracy Suffers

Jerry Brown | Photo: Ohad/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The McCoy Solar Energy Project in the California desert got a huge boost this week, as California Governor Jerry Brown certified the 750-megawatt NextEra solar development in Riverside County for expedited legal review under his recent reforms to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the state's landmark environmental law. After Brown's decision, any legal challenges to the project's approval will go directly to the Court of Appeals rather than first being heard in a lower court.

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The photovoltaic project, which would occupy nearly 4,800 acres of open desert northwest of Blythe, had its Final Environmental Impact Statement published in December. It would adjoin the suspended Blythe Solar Project, which has lain bulldozed and unprotected since its original developer Solar Millennium went bankrupt in 2012.

CEQA, passed in 1970, has for years been one of the country's toughest environmental laws. Unlike its federal counterpart the National Environmental Policy Act, which mainly requires that potentially destructive projects analyze their likely environmental impacts before they proceed, CEQA actually requires that developers of projects being assessed choose the environmentally superior alternative. CEQA is also broader in scope than NEPA, which applies only to projects receiving federal support.

In other words, CEQA over the last 40 years has had teeth that NEPA lacks. It has thus come under increasing fire for getting in the way of projects someone somewhere deems useful or important.

Brown, whose erstwhile populist sensibilities seemed to wane when he found that the residents of the city of Oakland failed to fall in line to support him when he, as mayor (1999-2007), decided a development was a good idea, has long criticized CEQA for being open to misuse by obstructionists and NIMBYs. At a renewable energy conference in Los Angeles in 2011, Brown told attendees that "I learned in Oakland that some kinds of opposition you have to crush."

"We need a centralized base of arbitrary intervention to overcome the distributed political power that is blocking forward progress," Brown said at that conference.

In other words, Brown increasingly has a problem with democracy, and CEQA -- with its opportunity for broad public comment and intervention -- is one of the more democratically inspired laws out there. So it's become a target for reform.

Brown recently provided some of that reform by pushing and signing AB 900, the law under which he fast-tracked review of the McCoy Solar project. That law provides for expedited review of projects that are very large, create jobs, and are deemed environmentally worthy. The language sounds good: who doesn't want to make job-creating, environmentally worthy projects happen? But there's no project so destructive that someone can't give it a veneer of green-sounding PR. Such projects are rightly obstructed by people who don't want damaging projects in their backyards, or anywhere else.

The whole point of CEQA was to slow down those who would build empires to the cost of the Californian environment. Jerry Brown isn't exempt from the intent of the law even if the empire he wants to build is LEED-certified; His CEQA reform is explicitly anti-democratic, and those who would speak up in defense of Riverside County's microphyll woodlands have had their rights abrogated.

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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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