California's Environmental Regulations Provide a Vision for the Future

Oct 8, 2013Melia Ungson

Millennials are looking to environmental regulations to ensure their quality of life in the future, but those regulations don't have to be seen as opposed to economic development.

I am grateful for the clean, potable water that runs from my tap, for the peace of mind that the buildings in which I work and play are free of many toxins that could harm my health, and for the confidence that I will be alerted when air quality is dangerously poor. I appreciate the reliable flow of electricity generated from a variety of sources. And I cherish the housing, the transit systems, the businesses and industries, and the parks that make our communities so vibrant while minimizing the negative impacts on residents and local ecosystems.  

Most of all, I am thankful for the environmental regulations that strive to make all of these things possible.

Environmental protection and economic growth are often put at odds with one another in our public discourse. One need only look at the reaction to President Obama’s plans to set limits on the emissions of new gas-fired and coal power plants. Opponents have claimed that the regulations will harm job creation and economic growth, calling it the next step in the president's “war on coal.” However, I am convinced that we can incorporate both environmental considerations and development needs in our vision for more resilient, strong, and vibrant communities.

Central to this effort are environmental regulations at the national, state, and local levels that require projects to recognize environmental impacts and take steps to mitigate the costs. One law that has been hailed as setting the highest environmental standards in the country is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which California legislators weakened earlier this year. Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, signed CEQA in 1970. It was during the height of the environmental movement and the National Environmental Policy Act had been passed just a year earlier. Among its more unique strengths are calls for thorough review of both public and private projects, a prohibition on piecemealing (which requires that developers consider their projects holistically), and legal standing for the public to evaluate projects with environmental costs. Since then, CEQA has served as a model for similar laws in over a dozen other states.

However, it has also been a source of controversy. Opponents say the law is often invoked for reasons unrelated to environmental concerns as a way to stop or delay projects and that the litigation process is opaque. The reasons for litigation or the threat of litigation range from labor disputes to efforts to block competing projects or firms. There are examples where these complaints ring true; for instance, in one case, a gas station owner invoked CEQA while trying to delay or discourage a competitor from adding additional pumps, a move that cost the competitor an extra $500,000. CEQA lawsuits about the environmental impact review process also delayed San Francisco’s plan to add bike lanes on major streets.

But by and large, the law has not actually created a maze of red tape that has caused developers and industry to run from the Golden State. On the contrary, a number of reports show that CEQA has not hurt California’s GDP and has boosted renewable projects. A report issued earlier this year found that since CEQA’s passage in 1970, California has been a leader in green power plant projects and has had fewer cancelled projects than states with less stringent environmental laws. The report also found that California’s per capita GDP, housing relative to population, manufacturing output, and construction activity grew as fast or faster since CEQA has been in place.

Despite those statistics, some legislators in California wanted to weaken CEQA. There was much heated debate, but legislators eventually settled on something of a middle ground. The bill signed by Governor Jerry Brown and proposed by Democratic leader Senator Darrell Steinberg waters down CEQA by exempting urban projects from parking and aesthetic (view-blocking) reviews, which have led to the most litigation, speeding the pace of litigation, and redefining how traffic impacts are determined.

Unfortunately, by squeezing in this reform to streamline the process for a Sacramento sports arena and keep the Sacramento Kings in the city, California missed a real opportunity to make meaningful reforms that would enhance the benefits of CEQA while also helping to address the openings for abuse or lack of clarity. This is part of a larger conversation: how do we use environmental protection to push sustainable development and innovation that will provide for a healthy and prosperous future?

As a Millennial looking far down the line, I want to think about how cities, communities, development projects, and sensitive ecological environments will hold up in the long run. We need development projects that will help usher in economic growth, bring jobs, cultivate vibrant communities, and more. But none of these goals can succeed unless we also aim for a healthy environment—one with clean air and water, with green spaces that allow local biodiversity to flourish and residents to lead healthy lifestyles, with transit and electricity systems propelled by clean fuels. By grounding regulations in our vision for the future, we can come closer to ensuring that regulations and development can work hand in hand. Environmental regulations can guide industry, provided that policymakers grant them the flexibility needed to make adjustments.

Melia Ungson is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment.

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