The federal government is in the middle of the most significant regulatory rollback in the history of the Republic, irritating the current administration’s critics and heartening business owners around the country.
But it won’t make much difference for California contractors who are still in the thrall of the most challenging state regulatory environment in the country.
More than over-heated rhetoric of this election season, this is a change started three years ago and continues. Last month, President Trump and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) announced a significant proposal to modernize regulations that implement the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the progenitor of California’s notorious Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
The new approach to NEPA focuses on its original intent – assessing environmental impacts of major projects and actions supported by the federal government – instead of being used as a mechanism for causing delays and uncertainty in planning and building projects, including those in the transportation sector.
The California Clone
CEQA, passed in 1970 shortly after NEPA was signed into law by Richard Nixon, has devolved to a shakedown instrument for environmental organizations, trade unions and NYMBY neighbors to delay or milk project owners, ranging from home builders, commercial property owners, schools and even infrastructure projects. Usually settling CEQA objections comes with a price tag, making donations and other pecuniary considerations into the hands of those objecting to the project on “environmental” grounds.
The contribution game works in other ways in Sacramento. Here’s how: a bill surfaces in the Legislature to “Fix CEQA,” but the measure only goes as far as a committee hearing or two before the author or co-sponsors of the proposed “fix” drop their concerns and campaign contributions fall into their political collection plates. There are ten different bills in this session to “fix” some aspect or another of the CEQA process, so we’ll see if anything changes.
Fixing NEPA Now
Things are remarkably similar on the national front. Adversaries have weaponized NEPA’s outdated review procedures to delay – often for years – or to derail transportation and other improvement projects. Needless delays and uncertainties can add high costs to these critical projects, at a time when funding is constrained nationwide.
What is going unsaid is that these changes to NEPA don’t require Congressional action, but can be achieved through the normal regulatory process. There will be court challenges at the end of this effort, but the scoreboard has changed in the legal environment over the last three years as well.
By Dave Sorem, P.E.ECA Government Affairs Chairman email: [email protected]