In October, The Housing Workshop released a landmark report about the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). This report (tinyurl.com/ceqa2021study), called “CEQA: California’s Living Environmental Law: CEQA’s Role in Housing, Environmental Justice & Climate Change,” focuses on environmental justice and climate change as today’s most urgent environmental issues, including case studies illustrating how CEQA addresses those problems. It has an in-depth analysis of CEQA’s role, over the last 50 years, in protecting California’s natural landscapes and communities, including some of California’s most iconic places. Coming at this time, the report is an antidote to the vitriol being generated in some quarters to discredit CEQA’s value to California in attempts to weaken it. A strong CEQA is needed now more than ever as California faces unprecedented challenges.
Unfortunately, in recent months a ‘Big Lie’ about CEQA has been popping up in California, and it has serious implications for public health and the environment. A Big Lie is a false narrative that is flatly contradicted by incontestable facts but repeated until it gains a life of its own and can no longer be easily refuted. A sustained campaign against CEQA, led by polluting industries, real estate developers, and other special interests, has repeatedly and falsely claimed that – despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary – California’s preeminent environmental law is somehow fueling the state’s housing crisis.
Evidence and data contained in a number of well-respected studies flatly refute the CEQA Big Lie. For example, a 2019 study by the Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP) surveyed 46 cities and counties throughout California about CEQA’s operation. As with the recent Living Environmental Law report, the AEP study found that high costs, lack of available sites, and lack of financing for affordable housing – not CEQA – are the primary barriers to housing production. The report also found that 88 percent of projects enjoyed a streamlined environmental review process under CEQA.
Both a 2019 report by the California Senate and a 2018 UC Berkeley study came to similar conclusions. The Senate study also found the state Legislature had already successfully amended CEQA to expedite housing development in densely populated urban areas and near transit centers. It concluded that “additional changes to CEQA might do less to promote development and more to undermine the law that helps ensure that development is undertaken responsibly.”
Still, proponents of this ‘Big Lie’ repeatedly charge that CEQA lawsuits are somehow overwhelming our court system and that these lawsuits suppress needed development. In fact, careful studies have shown that litigation under CEQA is rare, and the cases that are filed typically call attention to legitimate issues related to public health, the environment and/or government transparency. As confirmed in the most recent CEQA Report, less than two percent of development projects in California ever face litigation under CEQA – hardly a flood of litigation. Indeed, the number of CEQA lawsuits filed since 2002 has remained constant, at only about 200 cases per year, despite significant population growth and a dramatic increase in developed areas.
Like any law, CEQA is not perfect. However, the few examples of CEQA being “misused” are overwhelmed by the myriad cases where the law has successfully protected the environment and public health. Over 50 years, CEQA has helped to safeguard some of California’s most beloved landscapes, from the Headwaters Forest and San Francisco Bay to Mono Lake and the Santa Monica Mountains. It has protected communities from urban sprawl and halted the destruction of historic resources. Members of the public now use the law to fight environmental injustice and global climate change. California would be a place of diminished natural treasures and increased environmental unfairness without CEQA.
As this summer of wildfires, drought and public health crises has brought home, we need CEQA’s robust environmental protections now more than ever. We must keep California’s environmental laws strong.
Roger Lin is an attorney at the California Environmental Justice Alliance, a statewide, community-led alliance that works to achieve environmental justice; Douglas Carstens is a partner with Chatten-Brown, Carstens & Minteer, LLP, a law firm specializing in environmental, land use, municipal, and natural resource law. Opinions expressed are those of the authors.