The California Environmental Quality Act is Under Fire Despite Serving Four Decades as the Model for Environmental Protection

It still has plenty of supporters, but a bipartisan effort to bring about change is growing.
The California Environmental Quality Act is credited by many with limiting development and preserving the natural beauty of the state. (JP Greenwood / Getty)
Sep 5, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

The New York Times reports that in California, “Environmentalists in this greenest of places call the California Environmental Quality Act the state’s most powerful environmental protection, a model for the nation credited with preserving lush wetlands and keeping condominiums off the slopes of the Sierra Nevada.”

“But the landmark law passed in 1970 has also been increasingly abused, opening the door to lawsuits—sometimes brought by business competitors or for reasons unrelated to the environment—that, regardless of their merit, can delay even green development projects for years or sometimes kill them completely.”

“With California still mired in what many consider its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the law, once a source of pride to many Californians and environmentalists across the country, has turned into an agonizing test in the struggle to balance environmental concerns against the need for jobs and economic growth.”

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The California Natural Resources Agency explains that the original “impetus for CEQA can be traced to the passage of the first federal environmental protection statute in 1969, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In response to this federal law, the California State Assembly created the Assembly Select Committee on Environmental Quality to study the possibility of supplementing NEPA through state law. This legislative committee, in 1970, issued a report entitled The Environmental Bill of Rights, which called for a California counterpart to NEPA. Later that same year, acting on the recommendations of the select committee, the legislature passed, and Governor Reagan signed, the CEQA statute.”

(Yes, the same Ronald Reagan who the DailyGreen named one of the U.S. Presidents with the worst environmental records, but that’s another story.)

The Times notes that attacks against CEQA, “have largely failed, a testament to the power of the environmental lobby and to the importance of environmental issues to voters here. Still, with unemployment in the state still above 10 percent, sentiment may be turning against the law, with Democrats increasingly joining Republicans in trying to change it.”

But CEQA does seem to have many voices willing to stand up and fight for its preservation. An editorial last month in the Los Angeles Times stated, “The good news is that rush-rush efforts to reform the state's bedrock environmental law have stalled for this session. As the Times editorial board called for Wednesday, last-minute legislation to change the California Environmental Quality Act will be placed into ‘pre-print’ so that the public can read it during the fall, and the bill will be formally introduced next session.”

The Center for Biological Diversity adds, “Since the Act was passed in 1970, it’s gained a proven track record of having a positive effect on air quality, water supply, and plants and wildlife.”

And the Planning and Conservation League states, “CEQA ensures the public has access to the same information as government agencies and officials, and provides Californians with a meaningful voice in the decisions that affect them, their families and communities most directly.”

An editorial in the Daily News provided a bit of middle ground. It noted that, “The 42-year-old law doesn't need to be gutted, but it needs to be modernized . . . It should be stripped of duplications by bringing it in line with the 120 other environmental laws added to the state and federal books since 1970 . . . It should not be robbed of its power to prevent real threats to clean air and water, to wildlife and to the qualify of life for people in the areas of big construction projects—but it should be altered so that it is no longer a cynical tool of nuisance lawsuits.”

Given that California Governor Jerry Brown has said that overhauling the law was “the Lord’s work,” it sounds like this isn’t the last we’ll hear about CEQA.

Do you think the California Environmental Quality Act can be modernized and still be effective?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |

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