Gavin Newsom wants to make it easier to build roads, dams and more. What’s in his plan?
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Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to make it easier for California to build big things. Friday, he unveiled a plan to make it happen.
At an 1,100 acre solar farm near Patterson in Stanislaus County, Newsom announced a package of legislative proposals and signed an executive order aimed at speeding big infrastructure projects. He aims to limit the time opponents can jam projects up in court with challenges under the California Environmental Quality Act, the law known as CEQA (and pronounced see-kwa).
Buoyed by an influx of federal dollars and motivated by the need to dramatically reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, Newsom’s “CEQA-reform” proposal is likely to be cheered by industry groups, construction unions and even some climate activists.
He said the plan was about more than the urgency of climate change, but about rebuilding the public’s faith in the state’s ability to commit to and accomplish big things.
“As someone who’s all in on high-speed rail…all I can think about is, ‘what if?’ ‘What if we had these principles before we laid out that project?’” he said, referring to the $128 billion, much-delayed rail project. “I may not have had to drive down here today. I may have been on that rail.”
California isn’t short on what the governor might call “big hairy audacious goals.” The state has a plan to harvest all of the state’s electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045. The Newsom administration adopted a plan to phase out the sale of gas-guzzling cars, shifting the state’s appetite for driving onto the electricity grid. Proposed projects on water — to store it, to strip it of saltwater, to keep it at bay as sea levels rise and rivers top their banks — abound.
To meet those goals, California needs to build, potentially at a scale that would dwarf even the boom times of the 1960s. At a breakfast gathering of big business representatives in Sacramento on Thursday, the governor stressed that the state is ready to spend $180 billion over the next 10 years, much of that money coming from the federal government.
“The question is, are we going to screw it up by being consumed by paralysis and process?” Newsom asked.
Several leading organizations quickly issued statements expressing skepticism about Newsom’s proposal to modify the state’s landmark environmental law. Their leaders wanted to see more details than his office disclosed this week.
“We need to meet the state’s climate goals with smart, carefully considered projects, not knee-jerk construction that bypasses the necessary protections that keep us safe,” said Aruna Prabhala, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Have questions about Newsom’s big proposal? Here’s what we know.
Q: What is the governor actually proposing?
A: Details are still sparse, but his executive order, a summary of 11 bills released by his office, a separate report put out by administration infrastructure adviser Antonio Villaraigosa and Newsom’s remarks speak to the following goals:
- Streamline environmental planning by coordinating among different local, state and federal agencies;
- Limit the amount of time courts have to weigh environmental challenges to nine months;
- Provide more funding to agencies to speed up reviews;
- Cut back on the number of documents that each review requires;
- Carve out more exemptions in the law to allow favored projects to skip certain environmental reviews.
Some of these changes would broaden provisions already included in state law. The nine-month limit on environmental litigation, for example, already applies to renewable energy projects, certain housing and even major sports stadiums.
“I love sports,” Newsom said. “But I also love roads. I love transit. I love bridges…why the hell can’t we translate that to all these other projects?”
Q: Is Newsom’s ‘CEQA reform’ plan a big deal?
A: To hear Newsom say it, this is a very big deal.
“If we get nothing else done in the next three years, this may be one of the most consequential things that we can actually deliver,” he said on Thursday.
For decades, California’s deliberate — or as critics argue, glacially slow and unpredictable — permitting process has been a hallmark of its environmental policy. At the heart of that process is the California Environmental Quality Act.
California lawmakers passed the law in 1970, riding a new public consciousness of environmental conservation and protection. It was a bipartisan sentiment. The governor who signed the law was Ronald Reagan while President Richard Nixon signed its federal counterpart that same year.
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