On environmental matters, California often leads the way for the nation and even the world.
This is as it should be. We have much to protect. Our home has the finest coast in the United States, the tallest mountains in the lower 48, the hottest deserts, the lushest northern forests and the biggest single patch of prime farm soil on earth.
But the seminal California Environmental Quality Act, more often known as CEQA, is badly in need of reform because it presents a potential roadblock to desperately needed renewable energy projects. CEQA requires state and local agencies to identify and disclose the potential environmental impacts of projects and then take steps to mitigate those impacts. It is undoubtedly the most important environmental law on the books after the federal law.
But over the past four decades CEQA has grown labyrinthine in its process and grievous in its costs. With clever enough lawyers, a determined opponent of development can obstruct, delay or deny a project for environmental offenses as trivial as blocking mountain views.
To avoid catastrophic carbon levels, state officials believe that California must cut its carbon emissions from 470 million tons a year to 85 million tons a year by 2050. Much of the work will be done by eliminating fossil fuels in transportation. But electric cars do us no net good if the electricity to power them is carbon intensive. That means that by 2050, nearly all of California’s electricity will need to come from renewable sources. The state is well on track to achieve the goal of a third of all energy coming from renewable by 2020. We’re at 20 percent.
But the pace of new energy projects will only quicken. And we cannot afford for those projects to die in CEQA’s capricious web. Two cases in point.
In San Luis Obispo County, wildlife advocates delayed proposals to build 800 megawatts of solar power because of concerns about species such as the San Joaquin kit fox. The dispute was resolved with wildlife pathways and somewhat lower power outputs.
In Lompoc, a 97.5-megawatt wind farm initially proposed in 2006 has yet to appear, thanks mostly to a lawsuit from nearby landowners that started with complaints about ruined views and noise.
In the solar case, there’s a tough balance between preserving vulnerable ecology and generating clean energy. We believe the outcome was a good compromise. But in the wind farm’s case, we simply cannot allow a single landowner’s gripes about ocean views derail an important project. We are too deep into climate trouble for such games.
The problem is that CEQA’s current framework gives no credit to the carbon-reducing aspects of renewable energy projects. It’s true that bold city councils and boards of supervisors have the power to pass a project over environmental objections. They must declare that an “overriding interest” exists and risk litigation. Climate change most certainly fits the bill of overriding interest. But with local governments cash-strapped and weary of court battles, why demand profiles in courage when a legislative fix is readily available?
CEQA contains a list of what are called categorical exemptions. The list lays out categories of projects that are exempt unless they presents an unusually large impact of some sort. Wetland restoration projects are an example of an exempt category. We urge legislators to add renewable energy projects to that list. And the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research should clarify guiding language about “visual impacts.”
California’s lovely landscapes make it unique, but we must also make way for renewable energy.