October 30, 2011
It’s hard to assess how strong or minimal the government’s involvement in the natural environment is—especially when their involvement is only through legal policy and legislation. Moreover the question is often raised as to how well the government regulates such legislation. As with all legislation, environmental legislation is constantly changing and adapting to new cases and findings and is not free from the influence of lobbying. However, in comparison to other types of legislation, environmental legislation and oversight is a relatively new concept that has only appeared in the last 75 years, thus facing many challenges as can be seen when looking at the history of environmental legislation in California.
In January of 1970 the federal government passed the National Environmental Protection Act, which essentially forced federal agencies to prepare Environmental Assessments (EA) and Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) for their actions. The act was spurred in part by the disastrous after-effects of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.
Unfortunately, far too often NEPA assessments don’t lead to problem-solving or action on the part of the agency to change their procedures. Many corporations hire “NEPA mills”, which are private firms that train expert analysts specifically for writing EAs and EISs. Few corporations are actually committed to hiring and keeping environmental impact experts, and NEPA mills make it unnecessary. This opens up the possibility of corruption and negligent assessment.
Before NEPA, there weren’t any major environmentalist federal statutes in the United States.
In the state of California, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) of 1970 soon followed the NEPA. The CEQA is a lot more all-encompassing than the NEPA—the CEQA actually requires that any major project, public or private, has to prepare an environmental statement report assessing the pros and cons of executing the project as is. It assesses everything from air and water pollution to hazardous waste, and has a say in the creation of anything from public service projects to digging new landfills.
However, recently CEQA has been cutting back on its scope too. In 2009 and spring of 2011 state legislature decided to let two special exceptions slide from regular CEQA query—the building of football stadiums in Los Angeles, a city that doesn’t even actually have a football team.
It will be interesting to see where this sets the bar in the future and demonstrates how strongly our country values economics and the prospects of gains. Gains can or cannot go had in hand with environmental protection and sustainability if individuals, states and country so choose. Whether we are on the right path in regards to legislation and oversight is therefore a matter of determining goals.
For more information, see: http://legalplanet.wordpress.com/2011/09/11/a-dangerous-bill/
About the authors: Kayla Duarte and Xueyou Wang are working towards their bachelor degrees in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.