State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, has a major challenge. He's the new chair of the important Environmental Quality committee, which among other things, will be considering possible changes to the California Environmental Quality Act, also known as CEQA. Gov. Jerry Brown called for reform of CEQA in his State of the State address. Now, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is introducing Senate Bill 731 to do just that. Both the governor and Steinberg feel the act has been used or misused for corporate competition (one corner gas station trying to stop a competitor from adding more pumps), by unions to force project labor agreements, and by opponents of infill development and transportation projects to delay or stop work.
CEQA was signed into law in 1970 by then governor Ronald Reagan to provide a statewide policy of environmental protections. CEQA requires analysis and public disclosure of possible environmental impacts and necessary mitigation. It has been a mandatory part of California state and local government land use decision making. It has also been the basis of numerous lawsuits. According to the governor and senators Steinberg and Hill, it has been used to stop development often for reasons that have nothing to do with environmental protection. It also has not been updated to reflect new environmental challenges including climate change and sea level rise.
This is a new assignment for Hill. The former chair of the committee, Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield, recently resigned from the state Senate to take a job with Chevron. He was a conservative senator, albeit a Democrat, and his approach to CEQA change was quite different from Hill, who has been a longtime environmental advocate. Rubio wanted to use a standards-based approach which would allow state or local government laws to prevail. Hill was against this and it will not be included in the proposed legislation. Instead, the bill will probably include language to speed up environmental review for renewable energy projects, bike lanes, mass transit initiatives and other "green" projects as well as cut back on lawsuits designed to slow down and block construction.
Hill has strong environmental credentials. He was a member of the California Air Resources Board and at one time chaired the Bay Area Quality Management Board. In the city of San Mateo, he is remembered as being a leader in Measure H, which lowered building heights. He also has some strong environmentalists on his committee including Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, and Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, who introduced California's first strict auto emissions law. The hope is to have a bill ready to introduce this month so it can be dealt with this session.
But it won't be easy -- even with the backing of the governor and the Senate president. Already there is opposition aplenty to any change led by environmental stalwarts such as the California League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, and by organized labor.
Hill's committee will also be looking at water quality issues connected with fracking, especially at one of the largest oil deposits, the Monterey Shale, which has 15.4 billion barrels of oil. The state currently has no fracking regulations (Meanwhile, Sen. Pavley is calling for a moratorium until the state does a thorough study of fracking's benefits and risks). Hill is also part of the leadership in Sacramento and heads the Democratic Caucus. Any possibility he could be the next Senate president when Steinberg is termed out? While he is not campaigning for the job as some others are, Hill is certainly on the A-list.
Over in the state Assembly, Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, is chairing a select committee on sea level rise and its impact on the California economy. It's a statewide problem but with special significance for the Bay Area. When Gordon was a county supervisor, he served on Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which has mapped the potential impacts of sea level rise on the immediate area. The committee will be collecting data on possible damage to California ports and goods movement, major airports, the coastline economy, state infrastructure, etc. A bill is expected next year. I've seen the BCDC presentation and it's scary. It will be interesting to see the recommendations from Gordon's committee.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at email@example.com.