Friday, October 9, 2015

Correctly Targeting Blame toward CEQA

I spent the first decade of my career working in hydroelectric development.  Not the big stuff, like Hoover Dam or Grand Coulee Dam, but the little stuff, often the retrofitting of turbines onto existing dams to take advantage of the increasing value of electricity.  (I had a small role in securing approvals for the turbine now at the base of Coyote Dam, which impounds Lake Mendocino and stores much of the water consumed in Sonoma County.)

I mention this history because it led me to a meeting in a small Oregon town meeting where the local citizenry had gathered to protest the great number of hydroelectric projects proposed for their region.

To be fair, many of the projects were bad ideas, proposed by out-of-state investors who understood that their projects were likely infeasible but were indiscriminately submitting applications on falling water everywhere in hopes of stumbling into a good project or two, while also arguing that the federal environmental standards were too strict.  My meeting attendance wasn’t intended to support the bulk of the projects, but to defend the handful of financially and environmentally viable projects from the possible lynch mob.

Knowledgeable observers understood that most of the projects were fated to fade away when the environmental review processes began.  But a local politician chose to burnish his environmental credentials by playing to those who didn’t understand the reality of the licensing process.  His rabble-rousing speech began with “Only one percent of all hydroelectric applications are rejected by the federal government.”  One could almost feel the collective gasp in the room as the audience pondered that 99 percent of the projects would get built.

The funny thing is that the “one percent” statement was probably accurate.  But its accuracy, as is true with many accurate statistics, was filtered through our flawed perceptions to yield an incorrect understanding.

It was probably true that only one percent of hydropower applications were rejected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  It was also true that only one percent of the applications were approved by FERC.  The missing 98 percent?  They were withdrawn by the applicant, or allowed to languish in the back files at FERC, when it became obvious that the electricity they could generate wouldn’t be worth either the construction costs or the costs of the environmental studies to secure approvals.

So, despite the ranting and effective distortion of the populist politician, the licensing system was working as it should.  Only the most economically feasible and environmentally benign projects were getting through the process.  The only difference from expectations was the bad projects, rather than being killed by FERC as many expected, were instead being drowned in FERC paperwork.  The net outcome was the same.

(I should note that I believe the effective rate of FERC approvals in that era was too low, that many projects that would have added cost-effective carbon-free energy to the electrical grid had bottom lines too marginal to survive the FERC paperwork blizzard.  But, at most, I think the approval rate should have been two percent, with the great majority of projects still going to a justified oblivion.  So my quibbling over the approval rate is fairly minor.)

I offer this preamble as a way of suggesting that there are many parallels between my observations of the FERC process of 35 years ago and the popular perceptions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) today.

A recent housing summit in Petaluma, highlighting the need for more housing in the region, had many pointing at CEQA as the villain, claiming that the CEQA was impeding new housing projects and creating the housing shortage.  Those with the pointing fingers were aligned with the investors who had submitted the great number of applications that troubled the Oregon town 35 years ago.

Playing the role filled 35 years earlier by the posturing politician, a letter writer to the local paper a week later demanded that CEQA opponents identify projects that had been denied under CEQA.  The point she misunderstood was the projects rarely get denied under CEQA.  Instead, poor projects, and a handful of good projects that are unfortunately positioned for approval under CEQA, succumb not to a negative decision by a public body, but to an overwhelming blizzard of environmental demands.

I can personally attest to the last point, having been involved in several worthy urban projects from which the resources and momentum were stripped by CEQA.  Following extended struggles through the CEQA process, the projects emerged with approvals but into a marketplace that had changed significantly in the long years since the projects were initiated and with the resources needed to move into construction already expended on CEQA compliance.

So yes, projects do fail because of CEQA, particularly urbanist projects.

And that ultimately becomes the key point on which criticisms of CEQA should be focused.  The most important flaw in CEQA isn’t that it denies too many projects, but that it effectively deters particular types of project, the urbanist projects that good environmental policy should encourage.

While attending the Congress for the New Urbanism in Dallas earlier this year, I spent an afternoon walking through a transit-oriented neighborhood (pictured above) with the assistant planning director for a large California city.  As we walked, he opined that suburban projects, even when supported by mediocre CEQA studies, tend to get approved by suburban city councils eager for the construction activity and the impact fees.  Those projects also lack neighbors who might go to court to slow the projects.

In contrast, urban projects, even when extensively studied and well-documented under CEQA, tend to get a higher level of scrutiny from politicians who are continually testing the political winds.  Also, urban projects are more likely to have neighbors willing to go to court, using CEQA arguments as a screen for NIMBYism.

Nor is the planner the only person expressing that position.  Writer Leigha Beckman, reporting on an extensive report prepared by a law firm with CEQA experience, describes how the projects most frequently undermined by CEQA tend to be the urbanist projects that objective observers would describe as the more environmentally desirable.  The Beckman article is a long read, but one that I recommend for those who care about the subject, which should include all urbanists.

(As a note on Beckman article, the link seems not to work, but an internet search on “lesson in California politics” will find the article just fine.)

So, 35 years after I found myself in a room filled with angry people talking past each other and willing to offer distorted views of reality instead of looking more deeply into the issues, I find myself deeply involved in an issue filled with angry people talking past each other and willing to offer distorted views of reality in place of looking more deeply into the issues.  And very few either time were truly grasping the problems, the timely approval of that handful benign hydropower projects 35 years ago and the unreasonable obstruction of urbanist project today.

I can only sigh and continue working toward something better.

In my next post, I’ll provide an extended response to a reader who recently argued that he can’t justify being an urbanist because the financial realities of his life require him to be a suburban commuter.  I sympathize with his concerns, but suggest that he look at his conundrum from a different perspective.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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