CEQA is good for California---and San Francisco
by Robbie Hunter
President State Building and Construction
Trades Council of California
April 2013 - Last month this column was dedicated to the history of deregulation and how workers inevitably pick up the tab when business blindly demands deregulation of longstanding protections that were enacted into law and regulation.
First, what should be asked is, why were these standards put in place? Why were these protections needed? Last month we spoke of the New Deal and the collusion between Wall Street, insurance companies, and banks that led to the Great Depression. In reaction, safeguards and regulations were put in place to protect the public and divide these financial institutions. These safeguards were removed early in the Bush Administration. And before Bush left office, the collusion of Wall Street banks and insurance companies once again almost led to the financial collapse of this nation. Working people, as in the Depression, paid the price.
When we deregulated the savings and loan industry, led by a company called El Dorado Savings and Loan, it led to the collapse of the savings and loan industry. We the public picked up the hundreds of billions in cost.
In California, when we deregulated the electric grid, Enron caused and manipulated blackouts to drive up their profits.
Now, deregulation is back. Special interests, developers and big business are on the march to deregulate the California Environmental Quality Act, commonly known as CEQA. This is the latest campaign in a war to rob California workers of a voice in decisions that affect their families and communities.
Since last month, the evidence has grown ever more convincing that California Building Trades workers, and working people from all walks of life, benefit from the safeguards and regulations that CEQA ensures them. Last month, a wide coalition of groups formed to defend CEQA from these latest attacks. The coalition includes the State Building Trades and other labor organizations, environmental groups, public health organizations, and elected officials.
As we descended on the Capitol to make our case to our legislators, we were armed with a landmark new study by University of Utah Economist Dr. Peter Phillips: “The Economic and Environmental Impact of the California Environmental Quality Act.” This study proves conclusively that CEQA has provided tremendous environmental benefits to California, while still serving to facilitate economic growth and construction work. You can find the study online here.
A news report from KCET in Los Angeles eported, “A new report released this month says that far from hindering the development of a new, greener infrastructure for the state, CEQA may have actually promoted such development compared to states with far less stringent environmental laws.”
To achieve their ends, the enemies of CEQA have widely circulated their myths: that CEQA causes unreasonable delays, that it somehow destroys jobs, that it allows frivolous lawsuits. None of that is true.
Consider this: California, with CEQA, has in operation solar power projects that produce over 10,000 megawatts of power. The desert states of Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico---which obviously don’t have CEQA---have a combined total of just 1,801 megawatts. Obviously, if anything, CEQA is facilitating, not deterring, solar power development.
In 2000 and 2001, I spent 14 months as an ironworker erecting the structural steel on La Paloma, a four turbine, 1,124-megawatt natural gas combined cycle power plant in Kern County. This plant was built using a wet-cooling process, which utilized water in the evaporators to cool turbines. The consumption is 7,000 gallons per minute for the next 50 years. The State Building Trades has taken issue with this old technology, when more air-cooled technology is available. We did this because all large construction projects in California must, by law, identify a source of water in order to proceed. At the rate water would be consumed by the 62 proposed power plants, new construction in California could be brought to a complete halt. So because of the scarcity of water, the Building Trades has pressed for air-cooled technology on power plants, and we’ve done this through CEQA. If La Paloma was built today using air-cooled technology, it would have a consumption rate of 150 gallons of water a minute, rather than 7,000. We should have used CEQA sooner. We’d have conserved more water to allow for more construction work.
CEQA has been accused of stopping construction projects in large numbers by the threat of a lawsuit. Of the 1.1 million civil lawsuits filed each year in California, CEQA accounts for less than 200, or 0.02 percent. The majority of this miniscule amount have been filed by neighbors adjacent to projects when a developer or public entity has refused to take communities’ concerns into account. These cases can only move forward if there is merit and a state statute imposes a $10,000 fine for litigation that has no merit. Again, the majority of these cases are settled within months with minimal impact on these projects.
CEQA has been accused of hindering infill. But an EPA nationwide study of infill projects from 2000 through 2010 in large metropolitan areas, found that three of the top four cities for infill development are in California. Yet another untruth.
CEQA has protected our health without harming our economy. We cannot afford more blind deregulation.