Power lines in Sacramento on Sept. 20, 2022. | Credit: Rahul Lal, CalMatters

The Santa Barbara Independent republishes stories from CalMatters.org on state and local issues impacting readers in Santa Barbara County.

The prospect of massive new electrical towers looming over California’s state parks killed the latest effort to reform the state’s signature environmental law.

On Wednesday, the Senate Environmental Committee voted to remove from Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia’s Assembly Bill 3238 provisions that sought to speed up California Environmental Quality Act reviews for electrical grid expansions including on state-owned parks and wildlife areas. 

Power companies had sponsored the measure that would provide them some relief from CEQA’s bureaucratic delays, arguing they can’t upgrade the electrical grid fast enough to meet the state’s ambitious climate change goals.

While the committee’s chair, Sen. Ben Allen, said he supported the intent of the bill to speed up bureaucratic delays, he said he couldn’t bear the thought of fast tracking environmental reviews that could put massive transmission towers over Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in San Diego County.

He called the park “a special place” he fondly remembers visiting as a child.

“I’m personally not going to put my stamp on anything if it’s going to make it easier for folks to run big transmission lines in the middle of the state park,” said Allen, a Democrat from El Segundo. “As written, the bill makes it easier for just that to happen.’”

Garcia, a Democrat from Coachella, begrudgingly agreed to remove the CEQA provisions in the bill, since the committee wouldn’t have advanced the measure if they stayed in.

Garcia wasn’t happy about it. He told the committee it was “shooting ourselves in the foot” by not tackling reforms that would quicken the pace to make the grid able to handle the surge in clean electricity from more wind turbines and solar power. 

“I think we’re missing a unique opportunity that requires us to roll up our sleeves,” he told the committee. “It requires us to move away from our ideological perspectives that CEQA cannot be reformed.” 

Supporters say streamlining the state permitting process for electrical grid upgrades is sorely needed since California’s sweeping plan to end its dependence on fossil fuels by 2045 would increase electricity consumption by as much as 68%. That would put an immense strain on the state’s already blackout-prone energy grid. As it stands, large-scale grid upgrades regularly take five or more years to plan and build, due to the lengthy environmental review process, they say.

But major environmental groups opposed the bill, citing concerns about parks and other sensitive landscapes. The debate is an example of a broader tension bedeviling California officials and those across the country as they try to get more clean energy projects up and running amid a climate crisis.

The same rules that helped environmental groups fight development and polluters in the past are now often used to delay energy projects necessary to wean the country  – and California – off dirty fossil fuels.

Environmentals fear fast-tracking environmental reviews would lead to power companies destroying wildlands in the rush to make the grid bigger. They’re particularly concerned about state parks and other undeveloped landscapes that currently have smaller power poles and lines that utilities would like to upgrade into massive, unsightly energy towers.

“We know how imperative it is for our state and planet to transition to clean energy as quickly as possible,” Kim Delfino, a lobbyist representing Defenders of Wildlife and the California Native Plant Society told the Senate’s Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee last week. “However, efficiencies should not equal weakening core environmental protections.”

Reforming CEQA isn’t easy

The opposition to Garcia’s bill, which had 12 bipartisan co-authors, also illustrates the fierce pushback to even small reforms to the California Environmental Quality Act – something that’s befuddled the Legislature and governors for years.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown once called reforming the act “the Lord’s work,” but he wasn’t able to pass substantial reforms. His successor, Gov. Gavin Newson, has made cutting delays from “green tape” a priority, and he also has tried to tackle CEQA. Last year, his office supported a package of bills and created a “strike team” with a goal of speeding up CEQA.

Advocates for CEQA reform say that since former Gov. Ronald Reagan signed it, the law intended to protect the environment from harmful pollution and large-scale industrial development is now regularly used to kill or delay for years much-needed projects, from affordable housing to green-energy infrastructure.

As it stands, CEQA (pronounced “see-kwa”) requires developers to pay for an environmental impact report that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take years to complete.

The analyses, sometimes thousands of pages of impenetrable legal and scientific jargon, have to consider a number of potential harms to wildlife and people. That includes pollution, construction traffic, noise, urban blight and a project’s impact on recreation. The reports must offer a range of alternatives that would mitigate any possible damage.

If an agency approves a report and moves the project forward, the law allows environmental groups, local organizations and other opponents to then comb through the document looking for flaws that can be used in a lawsuit. Those lawsuits can take years to make their way through the courts.

Are state parks threatened?

Garcia’s office said CEQA reviews have become a major barrier to upgrading the state’s energy grid. His office cited one 117-mile Southern California powerline project that took five years for officials to review. It had an 11,000-page impact report that evaluated over 100 project “alternatives.” That same project required 70 permits issued by more than two dozen different agencies.

But a key sticking point for environmentalists was how the bill would have exempted power grid upgrades from CEQA on state owned-lands, particularly at California’s parks. 

Garcia’s bill would have eliminated CEQA reviews for infrastructure upgrades that require a utility to acquire state lands immediately adjacent to existing “right of way” already used for power lines and other energy infrastructure. His office said the actual construction of new transmission towers and other electrical equipment on state property would have still required a CEQA review.

Environmentalists such as Brianna Fordem, executive director of the Anza-Borrego Foundation, feared that the upgrades would destroy Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. 

Fordem told the utilities committee last week “hundreds of miles of existing rights of ways” will be “the path of least resistance for hundreds of 200-foot towers permanently scarring our campgrounds, our hiking trails, our sacred cultural preserves, endangered wildlife habitat, dark night skies and more.”

“Nothing,” she said, “will be protected.” 

Bill sails through, despite opposition

The bill also sought to codify a settlement reached last year between the state’s three largest investor-owned public utilities – Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric —  and some environmentalists and clean-energy groups.  The settlement called for changes to the way the California Public Utilities Commission and other agencies issue permits for electrical transmission lines.

That was another point of contention at Wednesday’s hearing. Environmental groups — and Allen — said they leery of the way the measure was written that they said would give environmental reviews a rubber stamp.

The original version of the bill would have made the utilities commission the lead CEQA permitting agency for electrical grid infrastructure projects. The commission would be required to conduct reviews within 270 days, which Garcia’s office says would shave up to two years off the process.

And instead of having other state and local agencies conduct separate CEQA reviews for the entire length of a powerline project, they’d only be obligated to conduct a review for the portion that crosses their jurisdictions. Garcia’s office said that would eliminate up to three years of delays. 

Visitors walk among a field of flowers at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in San Diego County on March 28, 2024. | Credit: Robert Hanashiro, USA Today Network via Reuters

Garcia told CalMatters after Wednesday’s hearing that while the parties agreed Wednesday to continue to negotiate codifying the settlement, the CEQA provisions were all removed, ending any hope of reforms for the year.

“It seemed like the position of, ‘Hell no. Not there. Not ever’ set us back,” Garcia said. 

The state’s major utilities companies argued that reforms are critical to meeting the state’s clean-energy goals.

“If we are truly in a climate crisis, then we need to behave as if we are in one,” San Diego Gas & Electric’s Erica Martin told the committee last week. “The existing process for approval to construct electric infrastructure is duplicative, lengthy and costly.”

Those arguments gave the bill momentum before Wednesday’s tense hearing.

It sailed through the Assembly this spring with only one lawmaker, San Ramon Democratic Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, voting “no,” according to the Digital Democracy database. She declined to comment, according to her spokesperson. 

The Senate utilities and energy committee also passed the bill last week without anyone voting against it. The committee’s Democratic chairperson, Sen. Steven Bradford of Inglewood, said his experience working for a utility informed his vote. 

State Sen. Steven Bradford speaks during a Q-and-A session at the State of Black California Tour at Crawford High School in San Diego on June 15, 2024. | Credit: Kristian Carreon for CalMatters

He’s a former public affairs manager for Southern California Edison, and he said he saw environmental groups support an energy project only to be “absolutely opposed” to building the transmission lines. He said he saw the same thing happen to a San Diego Gas & Electric project.

“Both of those projects were delayed almost five years and added billions of dollars to the cost,” Bradford told the committee. “At the same time, we set all these arbitrary goals of when we’re going to have this renewable power, but we’re failing to build the infrastructure that’s necessary to deliver the power where it’s needed.”

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