The Importance of the California Environmental Quality Act to Global Warming: Why Changes Should be Rejected in the Budget Battle Today5 min read

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Let’s be clear about the California Environmental Quality Act and global warming.

As our state’s flagship environmental law, CEQA requires all state and local agencies to assess, and then to reduce, to the extent feasible, all significant environmental impacts from new projects. Greenhouse gas emissions are among the most important impacts that CEQA addresses, and thus the law provides an ideal opportunity as well as a legal mandate for cities, counties, and other agencies to consider the greenhouse gas emissions from new projects they approve and then to adopt measures to reduce those emissions. The CEQA environmental review process is not about stopping projects, but about improving them. This process is established across the state and has a long, proven record of success. The CEQA is a key component of the suite of laws and policies already on the books to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our state.

This is what the Senate Republicans are trying to destroy with a proposal to eliminate the authority to enforce CEQA with respect to greenhouse gas emissions. This proposal is at the top of a wish list on behalf of oil companies and developers for which the Senate Republicans are holding up the state’s entire $145 billion budget bill.

This proposal is so outrageous that its sponsors have done everything possible to hide their efforts from the public, including introducing the idea during the dark of night in the utterly inappropriate Budget Act context. They are also attempting to misrepresent the efforts of the California Attorney General and conservation organizations to enforce CEQA as “premature” attempts to enforce the California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32, 2006). It’s the type of misrepresentation that isn’t easily identifiable to most members of the public, but those who are promoting it certainly know that they are twisting the facts to cripple California’s environmental laws.

My organization has been asking local agencies to properly consider the greenhouse gas emissions of the projects they approve since at least 2001. The obligation to do so predates and is separate from the new mandates of the Global Warming Solutions Act and other laws. The behavior of cities and counties not accustomed to thinking about the greenhouse gas pollution implications of their land use and planning decisions has been slow to change – but it has been changing, thanks in large part to Attorney General Jerry Brown’s efforts to enforce CEQA. Faced with the ironclad argument that agencies and project applicants must assess and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the extent feasible through the CEQA process, a number of special interests are now seeking to eliminate CEQA’s requirements with regard to greenhouse gas emissions.

Industry groups including the Western States Petroleum Association sent a letter to the Governor and Legislators on June 21, 2007 seeking an “administrative or legislative remedy” to CEQA review for greenhouse gas emissions. The WSPA members ConocoPhillips and Chevron both have oil refinery expansion project proposals in the Bay Area currently undergoing CEQA review. Each project would pump approximately one million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually – by comparison, all of Marin County emits 3 million metric tons per year, and the entire state of California emits 471 million metric tons per year. The Attorney General and others have criticized the oil companies’ failure to explore measures to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

It is unconscionable that Republican Senators are holding our state’s education and healthcare spending hostage on behalf of oil companies, who, with their record-breaking, billion dollar profits, still want to eviscerate an environmental law that simply requires them to explore and adopt measures to reduce their environmental impact.

California is a global leader in climate change policy precisely because we have multiple laws and policies on the books to address greenhouse gas pollution, including California’s Clean Vehicle Law (AB 1493, 2002), Governor Schwarzenegger’s June 1, 2005 Executive Order S-3-05, and the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32, 2006). CEQA is central among these laws and a critically important mechanism for cities and counties to examine the impact of new development and other projects.

With the state’s population projected to double by mid-century, we must start changing the way we grow in order to significantly reduce overall greenhouse gas pollution. To suggest that efforts to implement and enforce CEQA’s requirements should be delayed until the Global Warming Solutions Act implementing regulations are completed is contrary to the goals of CEQA, and would be environmentally disastrous for our state. The Legislature clearly intended that existing laws reducing greenhouse gases continue to be enforced, as the Global Warming Solutions Act states repeatedly that it does not excuse compliance with any existing law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or protect the environment. See, e.g., Cal. Health and Safety Code §§ 38592(b), 38598.

The greenhouse gas pollution choices we make today will determine our state’s future, and will literally mean the difference between life and death for many Californians. “Business as usual” emissions, which we will be unable to avoid if the Republicans and their industry supporters get their way, will lead to an approximately five-fold increase in heat-related deaths in the state’s major urban centers by the end of this century. Significant, prompt emissions reductions will lower that number substantially. Similarly, we can expect to lose 90% of the Sierra Nevada snowpack under the “business as usual” scenario. With prompt action, we may retain up 70% of the snowpack; the list of preventable harms to the states’ biological and economic resources is long and demands immediate action.

On Tuesday, July 24, over two dozen environmental justice, conservation, renewable energy, and other organizations sent a letter to Governor Schwarzenegger requesting that he publicly oppose the Republican Senators’ crude attempt to roll back California’s efforts to fight global warming. The Governor should demonstrate continued leadership in fighting global warming by condemning this outrageous demand. Furthermore, the cash-heavy oil companies and the Republicans they control should stop holding our state’s education and healthcare spending hostage while they campaign for more favors to line their pockets at the expense of all Californians.

Read more and send a message to your State Senator at this website.

Kassie Siegel, Staff Attorney and Director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate, Air, and Energy Program, develops and implements campaigns and litigation for the reduction of greenhouse gas pollution and the protection of wildlife threatened by global warming.

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