Update: Sen. Michael Rubio and Senate Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg have announced that Senate Bill 317, which would have made major changes to the enforcement of the California Environmental Quality Act, has been killed and will not be heard by the Senate.

After 42 years of occasional tweaks, frequent criticism, and, allegedly, rampant abuse, serious CEQA reform has come to the forefront of California's legislative agenda. With ten days to go in this year's legislative session, two bills have emerged that would dramatically alter the state's landmark environmental law. 

Yesterday, SB 317 (Michael Rubio, D-Shafter) was introduced as a gut-and-amend bill. The new law would not actually change CEQA but rather would introduce a companion law, called the Sustinable Environmental Protection Act, which would dictate how CEQA is enforced. The act would restrict certain types of lawsuits and it would exempt some projects from CEQA review as long as those projects conform with local planning and zoning codes. 

Supporters have also noted that CEQA sometimes frustrates efforts to implement SB 375. SB 317 seeks to ease the way for infill projects that would likely conform with Sustainable Communities Strategies. 

Both sides went on the offensive yesterday, with environmental groups decrying any weakening of CEQA and developers, business groups, and labor groups crying that reform is long overdue. Gov. Jerry Brown has said that he supports CEQA reform and has in the past supported efforts to exempt a limited number of large projects from CEQA review and lawsuits.  

The impetus for CEQA reform stems from claims that frivolous lawsuits, filed by opponents who are not necessarily motivated by environmental protection but rather by more parochial and even personal interests, drastically complicate and delay the development process across teh state. Developers have claimed that CEQA costs them considerable time and money. 

Environmental groups, however, have maintained that CEQA -- in mandating that developers discover, disclose, and propose mitigation for environmental impacts -- offers the best defense against development that could hard natural resources or exert other undesirable impacts on the environment, including traffic, noise, and pollution. 

A "working group" of supporters touts what it considers the following advantages of SB 317: 

  •  Integrate Environmental and Planning Laws: where a federal, state or local environmental or land use law has been enacted to achieve environmental protection objectives (e.g., air and water quality, greenhouse gas emission reductions, endangered species, wetlands protections, etc.), CEQA review documents like EIRs should focus on fostering informed debate (including public notice and comment) by the public and decision makers about how applicable environmental standards reduce project impacts.
  • Eliminate CEQA Duplication: SB 317 would avoid duplicative litigation by limiting the ability to challenge the  environmental document prepared for a project that complies with an approved plan and incorporates all applicable mitigation measures from the environmental impact report (EIR) prepared for the approved plan.
  • Focus CEQA Litigation on Compliance with Environmental and Planning Laws: CEQA lawsuits should not be used to challenge adopted environmental standards, or to  re-challenge approved plans by challenging projects that comply with plans.
Opponents, including the Planning and Conservation League, Nature Conservancy, and Sierra Club have called SB 317, a "war on CEQA" that would "take the heart out of this great law." They claim that the exceptions and streamlining hat SB 317 promises would effectively nullify any lawsuits and therefore render the law moot.  They contend that SB 317 would: 
  • Exempt certain large industrial projects that would likely create pollution, including oil refineries  hazardous waste dumps, and power plants. 
  • Undermine SB 375 by granting the same exemptions to low-density housing as to dense infill development. 
  • Replace project-specific CEQA lawsuits with lawsuits over general plans and zoning. 
  • Promote suburban sprawl over urban growth. 
  • Provide for exemptions based on outdated information. 
The working group insists that local agencies and governments will retain ultimate control over project approvals and that legitimate environmental concerns will be met under SB 317. 
This bill is currently being debated in the Capitol. A coalition of Democrats has reportedly pledged to vote against any changes to CEQA. 

Please refer back to CP&DR for updated coverage as this story develops.