When then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, into law in 1970, it’s unlikely anyone thought it would eventually be equipped with a warhead and then used to harm business rivals, block development for political rather than environmental reasons, and leverage better labor deals for unions. Yet not only is that exactly what has happened, activists continue to come up with new ways to misuse the law for their narrow purposes.
For instance, California Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman has told the University of California, Berkeley that it cannot “increase student enrollment in academic year 2022-2023 or later above the level of student enrollment at UC Berkeley in academic year 2020-2021,” about 42,000, because “further increases in student enrollment above the current enrollment level at UC Berkeley could result in an adverse change or alteration to the physical environment.”
The judge also shut down a housing project on campus.
In a story headlined “In California, College Students Are Now Officially Considered an Environmental Menace,” Slate magazine, never thought of as anyone’s conservative news site, called the judge’s ruling “the latest and most explicit example of California’s famously stringent environmental law being used for population control.”
While that sounds a bit overheated, it might be more on point than a first impression would indicate. Is it really out of the realm that at some point in the future an activist group could find a judge who will cite CEQA to stop construction of a hospital on grounds that it will be an environmental menace because children will be born there? Activists have already been successful in using California environmental law to temporarily shut down construction at the University of California, San Francisco’s medical center at the Parnassus Heights campus, and the zero-population-growth movement has only become more extreme since Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich wrote in 1968 that “we must rapidly bring the world population under control,” reduce “the growth rate to zero or” make it negative, and achieve a “conscious regulation of human numbers.”
Seligman furthered the cause of anti-growth NIMBYism with his decision, in this case on behalf of a group called Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, which sued over the housing project in 2019, claiming the school had not adequately studied how adding 11,000 additional students since 2005 would impact the environment.
While uber-wealthy, just-plain well-off, and progressive white Californians use CEQA to preserve their comfort zones, minorities pay the price of the state’s many layers of environmental policy. Jennifer Hernandez, 37 years an environmental and land-use lawyer, says environmental law has created “a new Green Jim Crow era in California.”
She conceded that California’s air and water have become cleaner over the last four decades and acknowledges that “the state leads the world in renewable energy and electric vehicle ownership.” But, she says, the “climate accomplishments are illusory” and have come at the cost of “deindustrialization, high energy costs, and, more recently and improbably, depopulation.” The “industrial and manufacturing sectors have been decimated,” and now California, thanks to a no-brakes green agenda (our characterization), has “the highest housing, transportation, and electricity costs in the country.”
She and a few others, Hernandez says, have been “lonely voices calling attention to how California’s supposedly world-leading environmental and climate regime was destroying the possibility of homeownership and manufacturing sector jobs for hardworking members of Latino, black, and other minority communities.”
Jerry Brown, who in his first turn at governor directly followed Reagan, believes that reforming CEQA is “the Lord’s work.” But for all lawmakers have tried – legendary columnist Dan Walters recently noted the large number of bills “tinkering with California’s landmark environmental legislation” produced in the last session – the law is still an exhausting nuisance. The better path is to write a new bill that would apply the volumes of knowledge gained over the last half-century in protecting the environment and at the same time include provisions that will prevent it from becoming another tool for abuse. Call it CEQA II to give it a little Hollywood flavor.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.