Lawmaker's abrupt departure blindsides effort to reform environmental law

The abrupt departure of California state Sen. Michael Rubio (D) has scrambled the push to reform the state's premier environmental protection law.

On Friday, when Rubio was expected to introduce a bill to overhaul the California Environmental Quality Act, he instead announced he was resigning to take a government affairs job at Chevron Corp., throwing a wrench into negotiations that had been in the works for months.

Under CEQA, developers must assess the environmental effects of any project that requires a state or local permit. Rubio had favored a method of revamping the 1970 law to reduce lawsuits that had deeply divided environmentalists and developers.

With his resignation, it is unclear what will happen to the push, which spurred other lawmakers to come to CEQA's defense with a flurry of bills.

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has been a vocal proponent of reforming the law to reduce delays, calling it "the Lord's work." He signed three bills last year to streamline the review process for specific types of projects (Greenwire, Aug. 24, 2012).


"He was certainly the foremost champion," Brown said in response to The Sacramento Bee's query on whether Rubio's resignation would hurt the CEQA reform effort.

Political observers agreed, saying Rubio's resignation could transform the debate. Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said it is unclear whether someone will step into the role Rubio was expected to play on CEQA legislation.

"This is a real key player," Schnur said. "His absence is going to make it harder for a bill to move forward on CEQA reform. Advocates for broader CEQA reform are going to have a much more difficult time without Rubio in the Senate."

Rubio's proposal, known as the "standards-based approach," would have prevented lawsuits citing other federal, state and local environmental and land-use laws as long as projects comply with those laws. Environmental groups were deeply opposed to it, saying it would gut the law's environmental protections. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D) and Rubio, the chairman of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, had been considering it since last year (Greenwire, Feb. 22).

It wasn't apparent whether the standards-based approach was going to make it into a bill this session. A day before Rubio's resignation, Steinberg backed away from the plan, saying it would be unpopular with lawmakers. Steinberg's bill, introduced Friday, is a broad outline touching on a number of areas, including streamlining for infill development and renewable energy projects and a proposal to allow projects to continue construction during legal challenges.

Environmentalists were relieved but still wary. "I think it will be less radical, but that doesn't mean it's going to be good for CEQA or good for protecting the environment," said Kathryn Phillips, executive director of Sierra Club California.

"Rubio was willing to go much farther than any other Democrat on this issue in terms of really weakening the law's protections in terms of environmental review," said Ethan Elkind, a climate research fellow at the University of California. "He was a very charismatic spokesperson for this issue, so losing him is huge.

"What it's likely to mean, it may be that his more radical version of reform didn't have much legs, and the scaled-back reform Steinberg is outlined is probably more to be likely where we end up," Elkind added. There will probably be more "small-bore" tweaks to the law, he said.

Other experts agreed. "I'm not sure if Steinberg now is willing to lead the CEQA reform efforts himself, or is looking for the next Rubio to do so," said Rick Frank, director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at the University of California, Davis. "If the former, my sense is that the CEQA revisions that emerge will be more environmentally friendly and less business/developer-friendly than if Rubio were still leading the charge."

Other proposals still out there

By appointing Rubio to chair the key Senate committee and populating it with more traditional environmentalists like Sen. Fran Pavley (D), Steinberg set up a venue for a meaty debate on CEQA, observers pointed out.

"Steinberg is, I believe, committed to a serious political debate over CEQA," Frank said. "He consciously positioned Senator Rubio to lead that effort ... then adopted a Lincoln-style 'team of rivals' approach by appointing a group of other senators to serve on the committee that is dominated by legislators more friendly to CEQA than is/was Rubio."

The outcome so far reflects that approach. A spate of bills on transparency, public information, judicial process and specific exemptions from the law have cropped up this session from a variety of sources. While Rubio's proposal had the backing of business groups, Sen. Noreen Evans (D) has crafted a set of bills with the help of environmental groups like the Planning and Conservation League. Those bills are aimed at increasing the transparency of the process and giving it more teeth when it comes to enforcement and preventing developers from using outdated environmental analyses.

The question is how much momentum for reform will remain without Rubio as a catalyst. Some stakeholders expect the debate will continue, while others think it might dwindle.

"He's one senator, and it's very understandable for family reasons he's resigning, but the push is going to continue," said Doug Carstens, a managing partner with the Southern California environmental law firm Chatten-Brown & Carstens. "He was basically serving people that were trying to come to him for solutions; there's a lot of other senators who would probably take up the same sort of flag."

Business groups will keep the pressure on, according to one lawyer who represents developers and public agencies in CEQA cases. "You still have the Silicon Valley Leadership Group that's going to be pushing hard; there's people in the building industry who've been pushing for CEQA reform for years," said Jim Moose, a senior partner with the Sacramento firm Remy Moose Manley. "I think what changed this year is it wasn't just traditional developers saying it, it's the high-tech industry."

But without Rubio as a foil, other lawmakers might not find reform as urgent, Frank said. The other bills "are more incremental reactions to Rubio than they are potential vehicles for comprehensive CEQA reform," he said. "And, with Rubio's departure, it's unclear how vigorously those other bills will be pursued by their authors."

It's not clear what will happen at the helm of the Environmental Quality Committee, which handles air and water quality, toxics and waste issues.

"We have a little time to sit down and reflect," said Rhys Williams, a spokesman for Steinberg, said Friday. "It's a two-year session; we're just at the start of it. No one's seeing an emergency to play a game of musical chairs" (E&ENews PM, Feb. 22).

Another question is how hard Brown is willing to push for reforms.

"Brown is serious about CEQA reform that more closely parallels what Rubio had in mind than in what progressive state Senate Democrats have been contemplating," Frank said. "So I'm not sure how supportive he would be to more modest efforts to amend the law."

Brown also has another major environmental issue on his plate: the state-federal plan to build massive conveyance tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which is projected to cost $14 billion and is opposed by Northern California lawmakers in its current form (Greenwire, Jan. 18).

Leader's bill scant on details

Steinberg's solo bill, introduced late Friday, identifies a number of areas of the law that it might adjust. In addition to infill and renewables streamlining, it proposes clarifying court rules so projects can move forward even if a part of their environmental analysis is found to violate CEQA. It also suggests outlawing "document dumps" in some cases, in which groups submit thousands of pages of documents into the evidentiary record in order to preserve their right to sue at a later date.

The bill also proposes setting a threshold for the amount of noise, traffic and aesthetic disturbance a project can cause without needing further environmental review. That provision raised the hackles of environmentalists, who said it could prevent analysis of a project's cumulative effects.

"It looks like it might be an initial exploration into using some kind of standards even though it says later that they're not planning to, so that would be a concern," said Abigail Okrent, legislative director for the Planning and Conservation League.

The bill, known as an "intent" bill that provides an outline of the lawmaker's plans, will be fleshed out in the coming months. In the meantime, a new CEQA leader may emerge, perhaps from the Assembly side of the Legislature, which has been mostly deferential to the Senate on CEQA so far, Frank pointed out.

"Rubio's resignation leaves a void that one or more moderate Assembly members could attempt to fill," he said.

Reporter Anne C. Mulkern contributed.

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Start a free trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.