Steinberg Submits SB 731 to Reform CEQA

Feb 23rd, 2013 | Posted by

Yesterday State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg submitted SB 731, a bill to reform the California Environmental Quality Act. But that was overshadowed by the even more dramatic news that the primary backer of CEQA reform in the legislature, State Senator Michael Rubio, was resigning to take a lobbying job at Chevron.

Darrell Steinberg

First up, SB 731. The bill itself lacks detail and is a placeholder that describes the legislature’s intent. According to information released by Sen. Steinberg’s office, SB 731 would “modernize” CEQA through the following steps:

Key elements of SB 731 include:

* Updating CEQA to encourage and expand infill developments to reduce urban sprawl. This will help jump start the state’s housing market while promoting development consistent with state climate and planning laws like SB 375.

* Expedite the CEQA process, without compromising underlying public disclosure or environmental protection, for new investments in clean energy, bike lanes and transportation projects that help California meet its renewable energy, clean air, jobs, and transit goals.

* Modernize CEQA and its implementing regulations to set clear minimum thresholds for impacts like parking, traffic, noise and aesthetics to allow local agencies to standardize mitigation of those impacts. This change would preserve local control to set more stringent thresholds where communities choose to do so.

* Reduce duplication in Environmental Impact Report filings by expanding the use of “tiering.” This streamlines and limits further paperwork whereby local land use plans that have sufficient detail and recently completed EIRs can be used by people building projects within those plans.

* Where Environmental Impact Reports have been successfully challenged, allow the courts to send back for repair only the portion of the EIR that is found to be incomplete or lacking required specificity. This would eliminate the need for the entire EIR to be recirculated for public comment which can create additional delays.

* In those cases where project developers and agencies haven’t made any substantive change to a project and the public has already had time to comment on it, limit or prohibit so-called “late hits” and “document dumps” designed solely to delay projects late in the environmental review process.

* Appropriate $30 million in new funding to local governments to update their general, area, and specific plans so that they can be better used to “tier” and streamline environmental review of projects built pursuant to those plans.

Many of these proposals make a ton of sense. Encouraging infill development is a very important part of reducing carbon emissions, since dense areas well-served by transit have smaller carbon footprints than low-density auto-dependent areas. With the climate crisis far and away the biggest threat to the environment, encouraging infill development is exactly what CEQA should be designed to do. I also like the idea of sending back just parts of an EIR for revision rather than tossing the entire document, although it might be wise to limit this to infill development and to mass transit projects.

The second item, expediting things like bike lanes and mass transit (including, perhaps, high speed rail?) is also welcome news, since again these alternatives are essential to reducing carbon emissions. Cars and trucks represent 35% of California’s overall carbon emissions as of 2009, by far the largest single category.

The third item might just address the Level of Service problem I described on Thursday, potentially allowing cities like San Francisco to strictly limit or maybe even do away with LOS as a category for review and mitigation under CEQA. But we’ll have to wait for more detailed bill text to determine how exactly this would work.

The language regarding “tiering” is sure to be controversial. Environmentalists had fought the concept since it was first floated back in August. Steinberg’s proposal appears to have some significant innovations to address those concerns. First, it requires the general plans to have a “recently approved” EIR, although how recent isn’t specified. It also requires them to have “sufficient detail,” an undefined but potentially significant requirement. And it gives money to local governments to help update their plans, addressing a concern that outdated plans could be used to enable bad projects to be built.

My guess is that the CEQA defenders will not support this concept. And they may balk at other parts of the bill. We’ll see what happens in the coming weeks.

Steinberg’s proposal was almost lost amidst the energy generated by the day’s bigger news, that of Sen. Rubio’s resignation. Sen. Rubio was the key backer of CEQA reform, and many speculated that Sen. Rubio may have decided to leave in part because CEQA reform wasn’t going to go his way. On the other hand, this proposal looks like something he could have lived with, especially since it includes tiering language.

Rubio’s departure has two significant effects. First, it is undoubtedly a blow for CEQA reform efforts. Rubio’s departure deprives the effort of a key leader, but the manner of his departure – especially his destination – will not help reconcile those concerned about reform to this proposal.

Opposition to hydraulic fracking for oil production in the Monterey Shale has been growing, and it is an opposition I personally share. Chevron is one of the major property owners of land in the Monterey Shale, especially in western Kern County. By heading to Chevron, Sen. Rubio has already started to generate questions about a possible connection between fracking and CEQA reform. Ethan Elkind at Legal Planet makes the point explicitly:

With the news that CEQA “reform” champion and State Senator Michael Rubio resigned today to lobby for Chevron, I have to wonder if his push for CEQA reform was really just to benefit oil and gas fracking. Sure, CEQA reform proponents liked to trumpet how a weakening of the law will help businesses and infill development and the like, but the reality was that the standards-based reform effort that Rubio and others advocated would primarily have benefited large sprawl projects — and of course the fracking industry, based in Rubio’s district in Kern County. Certainly there is not a lot of infill development happening in Kern County right now to motivate the former State Senator to champion reform for that outcome. And not only is Rubio an interested party in the oil and gas industry, but Tina Thomas, the lawyer who worked with Rubio to draft his CEQA reform legislation, counts Chevron as one of her clients.

So why would fracking proponents care to push for changes to CEQA? Currently, California and the United States do not have regulations in place to address fracking, and CEQA has been largely ignored when it comes to this extraction process. But in 2011, California Department of Conservation employees who review permits for new fracking projects (correctly) argued that CEQA review should apply to these projects. In response, the Brown Administration promptly fired them. But with the law on the side of CEQA proponents, companies like Chevron had to know that California’s premiere environmental law would delay and possibly limit their fracking projects. That’s where Thomas and Rubio came in, joined by longstanding business critics of CEQA.

Elkind’s analysis has already been widely circulated among environmentalists and climate hawks worried about the CEQA reform effort. If Sen. Rubio’s goal was to help speed CEQA reform, his move to Chevron has instead undermined that project.

The other major impact of Sen. Rubio’s resignation is that it temporarily deprives the Democrats of a supermajority in the State Senate. That’s because an empty chair is functionally equivalent to a Republican seat – 27 of the 40 seats are needed to have a 2/3 majority in the Senate, even if some of those 40 seats are vacant. Democrats had a 29-11 advantage in the Senate after the November election, but because three of the Democratic seats are now vacant, they only have 26 votes, one shy of a supermajority. They’ll get seat number 27 back on March 12 when a special election in San Diego is held, and likely get seat number 28 back in May when a special election in the San Gabriel Valley is held.

Rubio’s seat has a strong Democratic majority, so his successor is likely to be another Democrat. Rumors have been flying that Fran Florez might run, which triggered rumors that her arch-rival Nicole Parra might run. I’ve also seen the name of Assemblymember Henry Perea mentioned for this seat, and he has been a strong advocate of high speed rail.

So the Democratic supermajority is safe. But CEQA reform certainly is not. After yesterday, SB 731’s passage looks less likely than it did just a day or two ago.

  1. jimsf
    Feb 23rd, 2013 at 19:49

    The “key elements” listed above for SB731 are complete common sense and its amazing we’ve waited so long for such common sense to prevail. There is nothing remotely radical being proposed.
    encourage infill.
    expidite transit, bike lanes and clean energy projects.
    fix only the broken parts of EIRs no redo the whole thing.
    reduce the ability for abuse by nimbys.
    Clarify, standardize, streamline.


    This is the kind of thing californians will support.

    VBobier Reply:

    Yes, indeed it is, of course as the article implied some will scream and holler at any changes, sensible or not.

  2. Travis D
    Feb 23rd, 2013 at 20:23

    I’d let them frack the whole darned thing if it’d get the HST built.

    Howard Reply:

    A California oil and gas severence tax can pay for building CHSR, and improvements to ACE, Capitols, Surfliner, San Joaquines, Metrolink and Caltrain, without begging Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representitives for more Federal money.

    Drunk Engineer Reply:

    I’d let them frack the whole darned thing if it’d get the HST built.

    Wasn’t HST supposed to reduce carbon emissions?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Your blog eats my comments. Check your spamfilter.

    Derek Reply:

    I don’t think it will reduce carbon emissions as much as it will prevent them from rising so quickly. In other words, it isn’t green, it’s just less ungreen.

  3. jimsf
    Feb 23rd, 2013 at 22:04

    I never followed this until today, but apparently there could be 15 BILLION barrels of oil down there and cali could wind up being the largest oil producer in the nation.. Including a the economic boom that would go with that.

    Only problem with that economic boom is that all those damn people from the other states will wind up moving here.

    CEQA should be use to keep them out or make them pay to get in. a lot.

    BeWise Reply:

    Charging a small fee on oil royalties (as almost all other states do, including Alaska) would actually go a long way in terms of raising additional state revenue. Such revenue could be used to finance projects that help mitigate the effects of additional fracking. Transportation projects would be a good example. I, personally, would be in favor of allowing fracking of the Monterey Shale, so long as the potential negative side effects are properly mitigated. It could also help address the high unemployment level in the Central Valley by creating thousands of good-paying jobs. That, combined with connecting the CV via HSR, could potentially lead to a state economic boon!

    jimsf Reply:

    they would have to make sure the jobs go to existing californians and not a bunch of arkies and okies migrating in.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    and what kind of boat did your great grand parents arrive on? and how did the established Californians feel about that?

    BeWise Reply:

    Why just Californians? You can’t just tell someone they can’t have a specific job just because they’re from out-of-state. That’s like protectionism gone too far.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    Every single person who works for CHSRA and its PBQD puppeteer does so solely because everybody competent to do so is excluded by trade protection.

    “Protectionism gone to far” is what it’s all about, from start to end.

    World class!

    BeWise Reply:


    jimsf Reply:

    I know, but one can hope.

    Jo Reply:

    “Roughnecks” is the correct term. Read the National Geographic article.

    Jo Reply:

    For what it is worth, the current issue of National Geographic magazine has an excellent article on fracking in North Dakota. If you want to know what uncontrolled fracking is like, this article articulates it very well.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    My concern would be that unless there were a specific dedication of revenues to the HSR system, the money from this would go to everything else. You would also get the lame excuses that “we don’t need no stinking trains” because we’ve “solved” the oil problem.

    How long do we have to wait for enough dinosaurs to die off?

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Of course, I also wonder what the comments from the pro-car, anti-rail crowd would be to the fact that the oil could just as easily be exported on the world market. It sure wouldn’t make gasoline cheaper in California; we know the pricing is based on the world market anyway.–Q9_KmAY

    John Burrows Reply:

    Many would come from Texas.

    John Burrows Reply:

    Rick Perry may not be governor of Texas for much longer but it would be interesting to see how he would react if Texas oilfield workers started packing up and heading for California.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    how is he reacting to them packing up and going to North Dakota?

    James M in Irvine, CA Reply:

    He is reacting by trying to get CA businesses to leave CA and move to Texas.

  4. D. P. Lubic
    Feb 24th, 2013 at 06:50

    Off topic, but perhaps of interest–some video clips I ran across while looking for something else.

    First, a double-deck train in India in a paint scheme of orange and red–shades of the Daylights!

    A 1984 training film from what was then Southern Railway on how to take a train down Saluda Grade–a line with a grade on the order of 5%!

    That’s all for now; have fun.

  5. Richard Mlynarik
    Feb 24th, 2013 at 09:38

    If Sen. Rubio’s goal was to help speed CEQA reform, his move to Chevron has instead undermined that project.

    Really Robert? Really?

    I’d say it is really part of a <a href=" plan to speed the painting of bike lanes. It’s only by working from within the belly of the beast and harnessing the riches of the cartels can we change traffic signal timing and add permeable pavement textures to TOD sidewalks and engineer the perfect pastel stucco colourants for our mixed-used developments.

    Though appearing to be acting exclusively in the interests of fossil fuel and real estate development interests, secret hero environmental crusaders like Carl Guano and socialist agent Michael Rubio are in reality hatching a top-secret plan that will bring about the Solar Powered Singularity decades earlier than naive Sierra Club types with their overt un-subtle un-nuanced un-compromising “environmentalism” could ever possibly achieve.

    And when all else fails, just remember: Anybody who claims otherwise is clearly a Palo Alto NIMBY and Future Denialist who with a vested interest in Peak Oil.

    jimsf Reply:

    The valiant protectors

    joe Reply:

    “It is a general popular error to imagine the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare.”
    ― Edmund Burke

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    “Dear Lord, is Chevron’s cunning secret environmentalist plan ever so cunning.”
    — Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke

    joe Reply:

    “Chevron One, encoded.”
    “Chevron Two, encoded.”
    “Chevron Three, encoded.”
    “Chevron Four, encoded.”
    “Chevron Five, encoded.”
    “Chevron Six, encoded.”
    “Chevron Seven, locked.”

    At least we got you to drop the strip-mall chatter. Now it’s Stargate!!!

  6. D. P. Lubic
    Feb 24th, 2013 at 10:50

    Off topic but of interest for connections;

    And advantage of vehicles on rails is that if they skid, it’s in one direction:

  7. D. P. Lubic
    Feb 24th, 2013 at 10:54

    Goofy contractors aren’t restricted to big public works (check posts 3 and 6):

  8. Reedman
    Feb 24th, 2013 at 14:10

    FYI, there is a proposal in the works to run a special Capitol Corridor train from Sacramento to the Sonoma Raceway on race days.

  9. D. P. Lubic
    Feb 24th, 2013 at 14:13

    Off topic, but definitely of interest–SNCF is taking the low-cost aviation model and applying it to HSR:

    swing hanger Reply:

    Hopefully the trains won’t be held up like this one:

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Continuing in other news, there are several items of interest in the current edition of “Destination/Freedom” (National Corridors Initiative newsletter); among them are:

    “Cars And Robust Cities Are Fundamentally Incompatible,” from the Transport Politic;

    “Working On The Railroad: Uncle Sam? Not Much,” from Harpers;


    “The Geometry Of Transit-Friendly Neighborhoods,” a type of “radar” that measures the appropriateness of TOD for a given location, at least in a rough initial form, from Atlantic Cities (Alon Levy may be interested in this one);

    Linked from the current edition of “D/F:”

    And from Streetsblog:

    swing hanger Reply:

    Thanks for the link to the streetsblog critique of the CNN report- this (the CNN report) was an especially egregious hit piece- in addition to the flaws detailed by streetsblog, there was the dishonest use of the familiar-to-everyone-here CAHSRA CG promo video to imply that the HSR trains depicted were the type intended for the Vermont route. I have said it before, but most mainstream media reports on railway matters are of piss-poor quality- in fact I often find the only source capable of reporting accurately and without the usual “choo-choo chug” condescension is the Wall Street Journal.

  10. jimsf
    Feb 24th, 2013 at 19:34

    So is what I’m reading correct that this caltrain extension to salinas has been funded as of 2012?
    I didn’t here about this before. I know that improvments have already started at the salinas station preparing for expanded rail service but I thought it was going to be ccjpa.

  11. Keith Saggers
    Feb 25th, 2013 at 06:30

    Coast Daylight is proposed to inially operate with one daily round trip as an extension of the Pacific Surfliner service in April 2015 with $26million for track and signal improvements funded for the Coast Corridor

    Keith Saggers Reply:

    From the State Rail Plan

  12. Keith Saggers
    Feb 25th, 2013 at 06:49


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