If you live in California and care about the environment you should be worried. In 2009 I watched some of my colleagues vote for measures written at the behest of special interests to create precedent-setting exemptions from environmental laws and review. Some passed; others failed. Nonetheless, those interested in seeing the Legislature serve the public interest have cause to be alarmed.
These bills covered a range of issues from air pollution regulations and land development to logging plans and new offshore oil drilling. They sought to either create unnecessary, one-time exemptions for the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) or were intended to change or weaken longstanding environmental review processes and laws.
The list of 2009 bills that undermine our environmental laws is long and ugly, but here are a few of the lowlights.
First, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed a bill that gave a single company (Majestic Realty) a full exemption from environmental review on the construction of an enormous 75,000 seat stadium in the City of Industry. This action undermined an existing court action brought by the City of Walnut raising environmental impacts.
Second, a bill was signed into law that allowed the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) to ignore the outcome of lawsuits they had lost as a result of not properly accounting for the environmental impacts of an air pollution crediting system. Instead of ensuring that adequate mitigations were made, or that all alternatives were considered, SCAQMD decided to spend tens of thousands of dollars on lobbyists to get the Legislature and governor to give them a "Get-Out-Of-Court" pass.
Third, legislation that weakened the state's already flawed Forest Practices Act further threatens the state's fisheries as soil erodes from cleared land and fills our streams and rivers.
Fourth, and perhaps most disturbing, was the effort by a Texas based oil company to bypass the State Lands Commission with last minute legislation that popped up in the heat of budget negotiations. This bill would've provided one company -- Plains Exploration and Production Company (PXP) - with preferential treatment in obtaining a lease to drill in California Sanctuary Act waters off the Coast of Santa Barbara County. PXP hired at least two lobbying firms and with the support of the Governor, managed to have their bill approved by the State Senate. Fortunately the Assembly saw it for what it was and handily defeated the measure.
All of these bills were promoted in the name of economic "progress" -- as if there is a choice between economic progress and environmental protection. The fact is, that since Ronald Reagan signed CEQA into law in 1970, the size of California's economy has tripled in value. Despite our supposedly onerous environmental regulations, California's job growth has outpaced that of the rest of the United States throughout the last two decades. And, even during the depth of this year's recession, our job loss rate is lower than the national average.
Over the last 30 years California's population has more than doubled. We are expected to reach nearly 50 million residents by 2030. We may be in a tough economic climate, but now is not the time to ease-up on environmental protections to benefit special interests. If we want to continue to improve air quality and our water supply, maintain our natural resources and open spaces for future generations, we need strong enforcement of our environmental laws.
I consider myself lucky to be a Californian. The rest of the country looks to us for leadership and innovation. We cannot allow selfish special interests to tarnish California's well earned reputation for environmental protection. As we move into the 2009-2010 California Legislative Session, let's abandon the false premise that the economy suffers when the environment is protected. Let's embrace what we know to be true, that prosperity and environmental protection go hand in hand.