State Adopts Expansive CEQA Infrastructure Streamlining Plan
On July 10, Governor Newsom signed five California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) reform bills (SB 145, 146, 147, 149 & 150) as part of an infrastructure streamlining plan that the Governor’s office has called the “the state’s most ambitious permitting and project review reforms in a half-century.” Another component of this plan was Executive Order (EO) N-8-23 issued by Governor Newsom on May 19 which included measures to streamline the permitting and approval process for infrastructure projects intended to maximize California’s share of federal money under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act. Combined, the changes will provide for significant streamlining for qualifying infrastructure projects while providing more modest changes to litigation procedure in CEQA cases.
SB 149 amends Public Resources Code section 21167.6 to clarify and streamline procedures related to the preparation of the administrative record for the judicial review of legal challenges brought under CEQA in order to reduce litigation time. These new procedures, which apply to all types of projects, will include allowing a public agency to elect to prepare the record, setting a time limit for a petitioner to prepare the record within a 60 day deadline following notification of election to prepare the record, requiring good cause for extensions of record preparation and requiring that the record be prepared in a hyperlinked electronic format with limited exception. SB 149 also contains a CEQA Judicial Streamlining measure that provides for expedited judicial review of challenges under CEQA to certain water, transportation related, clean energy, and semiconductor or microelectronic projects. For the defined types of projects, any CEQA litigation, including appeals, would need to be resolved, to the extent feasible, within 270 days.
SB 146 permanently extends Government Code § 13979.2, which allows the California Secretary of Transportation to assume responsibilities under NEPA, and eliminates the January 1, 2025 sunset provision under existing law. As a result, the NEPA approval process will likely be streamlined given that joint federal/state agency preparation of documents is a more complicated and lengthy process. SB 147 includes reclassifying certain fully protected species and exempting any change in the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) status of any of the remaining exempted species from compliance with CEQA. In particular, the law repeals the four existing statutes designating species as “fully protected” under California law and consolidates regulations into the CESA. SB 145 requires Caltrans to ensure construction of three wildlife crossings over I-15 if an intercity passenger rail project is constructed, while SB 150 embeds workforces and community benefit requirements into contracting related to several federal programs.
Prior to passage, the plan’s legislative package was composed of 11 CEQA reform bills. Governor Newsom asked the state legislature to fast track the 11 CEQA reform bills concurrent with their duty to adopt a budget by June 15. However, the reform bills were not included in the Budget Act of 2023 passed on June 15 (SB 101). Instead, the reform bills were passed by the Legislature as separate bills in conjunction with an amended budget. The five bills included nearly all the content of the 11 CEQA reform bills except that the Governor agreed to drop a provision that could have fast-tracked the Delta Conveyance project. The language of the Governor’s Executive Order is general and broad in scope. Its implementing measures still need to be developed by an Infrastructure Strike Team responsible for maximizing federal and state funding opportunities for California infrastructure projects.