Industry Will Never Miss a Chance to Weaken Environmental Laws

And their apologists / enablers in the press help them.

We’ve been following the ongoing saga of UC Berkeley’s fight against the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The short version of the story is that UC wants to increase enrollment beyond what was accounted for in the City of Berkeley plan. Local residents sued under CEQA to force the University to do an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) claiming that the unplanned enrollment increase will impact housing and traffic, and lead to increased homelessness.

Cue the outrage machine.

The San Francisco Chronical uses this case to call for CEQA reform By carving out projects from California environmental law, the state has created ‘Swiss cheese CEQA’

“This latest example in Berkeley, it’s borderline crazy,” said Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council. “It’s no longer protecting the environment, it’s protecting special interests. It’s become a real ruse.”

CalMatters Commentary says “Berkeley case proves CEQA needs to be reformed”

The extent of CEQA overreach hit a new mark recently when the California Supreme Court expanded it to exclude one-third of the University of California, Berkeley’s incoming class from campus. Students are the latest targets of CEQA lawsuit abuses. According to the courts, people are “significant adverse impacts” to the environment because they – and not the buildings they occupy – take showers and drive cars. 

The Greenbelt Alliance claims that they are strong supporters of CEQA, but that this case proves it needs to be “reformed”

It’s been hard to miss the recent news of a court decision that limits admissions to UC Berkeley—the State’s flagship public university—due to a lawsuit claiming violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). On February 10th, the California First Court of Appeal upheld the decision made by the Alameda County Superior Court to limit UC Berkeley’s enrollment to 2020-21 levels and stop the development of a faculty housing project as a response to a suit brought forth by Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, a local NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) group of Berkeley homeowners. This decision may restrict the admission of more than 3,000 hopeful high schoolers from receiving acceptance letters for Fall 2022.

In the NY Times editorial page, Ezra Klein used the opportunity to tell us that “Government Is Flailing, in Part Because Liberals Hobbled It

These bills were built for an era when the issue was that the government was building too much, with too little environmental analysis. The core problem of this era is that the government is building too little, in defiance of all serious environmental analysis. This is the maddening inversion climate change imposes upon us: To conserve anything close to the climate we’ve had, we need to build as we’ve never built before, electrifying everything and constructing the green energy infrastructure to generate that electricity cleanly. As the climate writer Julian Brave NoiseCat once put it to me, “If you want to stand athwart the history of emissions and yell ‘stop,’ you need to do really transformational things.”

Let’s start with some context of the Berkeley case. The way the critics present the case, they make it sound like the enrollment would be lowered from historical levels. That is a gross misinterpretation of the numbers as you can see from this graph

In 2005, the University completed an Environmental Impact Report and long term plan. At the time, enrollment was 33,574. The EIR stated that enrollment would grow by 1,650 by 2020 to a total (approximate) of 35,000. The University blew through that number in 2008. By 2020, enrollment had grown by over 8,000 to 42.347. Then, in 2021, enrollment shot up to 45,036 The University planned for an increase of less than 5% but instead grew over 30%. The University executed this massive increase in enrollment without increasing student housing or taking any other steps to mitigate the impact. Keep in mind that the City of Berkeley has a total population of 121,485. UC Berkeley increased enrollment by an amount equivalent to 7% of the total population of the city. Meanwhile, the University pays ZERO dollars for the city services it uses

The city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley currently don’t have a working agreement between them for the university’s use of city services. It lapsed a few months ago after the terms of the 2005 long-range plan lapsed. UC Berkeley has been paying about $1.8 million annually for its use of Berkeley’s fire, police, emergency and public health services. Berkeley now contends that the actual cost is around $21 million a year, a number that UC Berkeley disputes.

And increasing student population way out of the guidelines of the plan isn’t the only way the University has broken the plan. In the 2005 long range plan, the University promised to build housing for an additional 2,500 students, but the actual number was half that.

Berkeley has long complained that UC Berkeley does not provide enough housing for its students. In fact, Cal provides the lowest percentage of beds of any campus in the UC system.

UC Berkeley’s new LRDP states that it will build 11,200 beds in the next 15 years. Two projects, the Anchor House project on University Avenue and Oxford Street, and one on People’s Park, are in the planning phases and will create about 1,900 beds. But as Berkeley pointed out in its response to the LRDP and draft EIR, there are no consequences if those beds are not constructed. In addition, that will still mean 70% of Cal students won’t have university-provided housing.

Given that the University has been less than forthright in its dealings with the city, is it really that unreasonable and abusive for residents to demand an analysis and a plan, and some enforcement method.

As a letter to Calmatters states UC Berkeley’s problem is poor planning, not CEQA

CEQA didn’t create these problems; the university’s poor planning did. CEQA is simply the messenger. Better planning, not gutting CEQA, is the answer. 

CEQA is a living law that has been updated dozens of times. It can, has and should be updated to address the current problems of the day. But it still plays an essential role in protecting public health, and both natural and urban environments.

Look, I am not arguing against increasing enrollment at UC Berkeley. Proponents say that increasing enrollment at Universities already in urban areas will have less environmental impact than building or expanding campuses in rural or undeveloped areas. That sounds reasonable, but these increases do have negative impacts, and we need to understand that and mitigate the negative impact as best we can.

What we shouldn’t so is take specific incidents, blow them up without context, and use them to gut environmental laws.

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