The stakes for Newsom’s big plan to streamline big California projects

This story appeared on Calmatters

California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks during a press conference surrounded by workers at the construction of the Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) for the future site of Proxima Solar Farm in Stanislaus County on May 19, 2023. Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday pledged to fast-track hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of construction projects throughout the state, including a pair of large water endeavors that have languished for years amid permitting delays and opposition from environmental groups. Photo by John G. Mabanglo, AP Photo

In summary

Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to decarbonize California’s economy but the California Environmental Quality Act is an impediment. So, he wants to streamline the law’s application for big public works projects.

Gavin Newsom is fond of proclaiming “big hairy audacious goals,” having borrowed the term from a book on successful corporate leadership.

However, he has not been particularly successful in delivering on his promises of bold, transformative action – such as single-payer health care for all Californians or constructing 3.5 million new housing units.

The hairiest and most audacious of Newsom’s goals is converting California’s massive economy – the fourth largest in the world, according to recent estimates – into one that booms while reducing its carbon footprint to zero in the next 22 years.

It would involve, among other things, shifting 30 million cars and trucks from gasoline or diesel power to electricity or hydrogen and abolishing gas-fired power plants in favor of solar, wind or thermal generation.

Such massive conversions are technologically doable, but they would be very expensive for consumers, utilities and governments. They would require a lot of construction projects, such as solar and wind farms, with some of the latter offshore.

Newsom says the state is planning to spend $180 billion over the next decade on projects to decarbonize the state’s economy and make its water supply less precarious, much of it from the federal government. However, he laments, the ability to deliver those public works is hampered by red tape, including the misuse of the California Environmental Quality Act by project opponents.

“The question is, are we going to screw it up by being consumed by paralysis and process?” Newsom said last week while announcing a package of legislation aimed at speeding up project delivery. “We’re here to assert a different paradigm, to commit ourselves to results.”

Newsom made his announcement at a solar energy farm in the San Joaquin Valley, citing it as an example of the kinds of projects his proposal would affect.

If approved by the Legislature, Newsom’s package would extend to major public works projects, including a very controversial water tunnel beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a big reservoir, Sites, in the Sacramento Valley, the same kind of fast-track permitting that the state has given to sports arenas.

“I love sports,” Newsom said. “But I also love roads. I love transit. I love bridges. And I love clean energy projects like the one we’re seeing here. It’s not just about stadiums. And we’ve proven we can get it done for stadiums. So why the hell can’t we translate that to all these other projects?”

Significantly, however, Newsom’s proposal to speed up CEQA’s process on big public works projects excludes housing, a field where the law has been obviously misused to delay or kill much-needed developments.

While administration officials say that CEQA reforms could indirectly benefit housing by reducing the volume of information that must be gathered, Newsom obviously doesn’t want a direct confrontation over the law’s application to housing, the shortage of which has exacerbated poverty and the state’s homelessness crisis.

The housing exclusion is drawing fire from pro-housing groups such as California YIMBY. Defenders of Wildlife, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and more than 70 other conservation organizations immediately published an opposition letter. Opponents of specific projects, such as the Delta tunnel – which has been on the list of proposed public works for at least 60 years – are likewise angered.

With opposition mounting, the package is not a slam dunk in the Legislature. A Senate budget committee dealt a blow to his proposal Thursday, voting against the bills because of the shortened timeline. Though Newsom could still offer the package in the form of budget “trailer bills” that can be enacted without the scrutiny that most legislation must endure – a misuse of process unto itself.

Newsom may be staking his governorship on procedural changes needed to make decarbonization, his biggest goal, a reality.

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