CEQA Reform: Making Sense of California’s Budget Trailer Bill
On June 12, 2023, each house of the California State Legislature released the proposed language of the Budget Act of 2023. The Legislature’s proposal excludes the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and permit streamlining provisions set out in the budget trailer bill Infrastructure Package advanced by Governor Newsom and that were posted by the State Department of Finance on May 19, 2023. Those provisions sought to expedite judicial review of CEQA challenges for eligible energy infrastructure, transportation, water, semiconductor and microelectronic projects.
While not included in the Budget Act of 2023 – that the Legislature passed on June 15 – Governor Newsom’s CEQA and permit streamlining vision may be advanced through other bills. CEQA streamlining bills now moving through the Legislature include those intended to streamline approvals of specified electrical transmission lines, public university housing, transit, solar, terrestrial wind and battery storage projects.
The Governor’s efforts to streamline environmental review of infrastructure projects also continues through implementation of Executive Order N-8-23. Executive Order N-8-23 seeks to streamline permitting of large infrastructure projects by establishing “Strike Teams” comprising the key state executive agencies. For the clean energy projects Strike Team, Executive Order N-8-23 also seeks the participation of the California Public Utilities Commission. The Strike Teams are intended to identify the specific infrastructure projects that are eligible for streamlining, facilitate inter-agency coordination and establish and update project-specific permitting dashboards to increase the transparency and predictability of environmental reviews.
Beta versions of the dashboards are expected to be available the summer of 2023, with full functionality anticipated by the end of that year.
Executive Order N-8-23 borrows from federal legislation administered by the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Counsel under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST-41) and aims to facilitate accountability, transparency and inter-agency coordination in the siting and environmental review of large infrastructure projects. FAST-41 has been utilized by developers and public agencies in efforts to facilitate federal environmental review and permitting of transmission, transportation and renewable generation projects.
CEQA and permit streamlining vehicles are essential for California to leverage federal infrastructure funding and to attain the state’s carbon neutrality goals.