Monday, January 12, 2009

Debate Looms Re: Environmental Reviews In a Depressed Economy

Jan 7: California's Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has touched off a powder keg of a debate that only promises to get bigger in the coming year as the Federal and state governments struggle to respond quickly to a plummeting economy and rising unemployment with a massive new stimulus focused on major infrastructure and alternative energy projects. The projects, many of which will be large in scale, will have obvious environmental impacts. The burning question is: In the scramble to get projects underway and create jobs; should environmental reviews and regulations be accelerated, revised or eliminated in the name of the economy and jobs?

In a recent press conference on the California State budget, Governor Schwarzenegger said, "Our unemployment rate, as you all know, is 8.4 percent in November; we expect it to go up to 9 percent. So I think that creating jobs is one of the most important things. It’s about jobs, jobs, jobs. That’s why I’ve been adamant about easing environmental regulations and other red tape in order to get the infrastructure going, to get infrastructure projects moving as quickly as possible. For every billion dollars that we spend on infrastructure we create 18,000 to 20,000 new jobs. The federal government estimates actually 40,000 new jobs but we try to be conservative about those numbers. Those are jobs that the people in California need right now."

On January 5, Governor Schwarzenegger wrote to President-elect Obama in follow-up to a meeting they had had in Philadelphia last month. The Governor told the President-elect that his list of infrastructure projects had grown from $28 billion to $44 billion since their meeting. The Governor said that California would be able to generate nearly 800,000 jobs over the life of the projects.

In making suggestions to the President-elect regarding the economic stimulus proposal, the Governor said in part, "I urge you to take the following steps to speed delivery of even more projects: - Waive or greatly streamline National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) requirements consistent with our statutory proposals to modify the California Environment Quality Act (CEQA) for transportation projects; - Increase funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Flood Mitigation Assistance Program and modify the program’s rules to fund major levee evaluations, repairs and rehabilitation. Regulatory streamlining should accompany this funding to allow CEQA to satisfy NEPA requirements for all levee projects that receive federal funding; - and Shorten federal permitting turnaround times and allow negotiations with permitting agencies over mitigation to occur during construction. . ."

Governor Schwarzenegger, who has generally received praise from environmental and conservation groups for his progressive stance on climate change and alternative energy issues, drew immediate criticism for his suggestions to relax environmental reviews and regulatory requirements. Immediately, national and state environmental organizations reacted issuing a joint release and statements. The groups involved included: California League of Conservation Voters (CLCV); Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC); Environmental Defense Fund (EDF); the Planning and Conservation League (PCL); Environment California; and the Sierra Club California.

According to the release, the groups urged Governor Schwarzenegger "to uphold critical environmental safeguards affecting a dozen major transportation projects that could harm California’s air, water and wilderness." The groups called the Governor's letter to President-elect Obama, "alarming." They said, "This dangerous precedent would allow the state to build the transportation projects without environmental review. If such safeguards are removed at federal and state levels, billions of dollars of new, polluting projects could receive federal funding priority over approved clean projects that are designed to protect public health and natural resources. The governor has frozen roughly $16 billion in existing, state-approved, environmentally reviewed projects that could be started this month and would provide badly needed jobs."

NRDC California representative said, “All Californians care about the fiscal health of our state, but relaxing environmental law is not the way to do it. California’s dedication to our workforce and investment in developing clean energy technology has built our economy into the eighth largest economy in the world. These are tough times, but it’s times like this that we need to work toward what's best for California.” EDF's State representative indicated, “Dirty projects that circumvent environmental protections are more costly in both the short and long run than clean ones. California should only fund projects that deliver good jobs and clean air instead of ones that will make matters worse.”

Access a release on the Governor's budget press conference (
click here), Access the letter from Governor Schwarzenegger to the President-elect (click here). Access a release from the environmental organizations with statements from each group and links to additional information (click here). [*All]