‘What the Hell Happened to the California of the ’50s and ’60s?’
By the time I talked to Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, he was clearly frustrated. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “These guys write reports and they protest. But we need to build. You can’t be serious about climate and the environment without reforming permitting and procurement in this state.”
It hurts to get hammered by your friends. And that’s what’s happening to Newsom. More than 100 environmental groups — including the Sierra Club of California and The Environmental Defense Center — are joining together to fight a package Newsom designed to make it easier to build infrastructure in California.
For Newsom, it’s a wounding break. “I licked envelopes for these nonprofits as a kid. My father was on the board of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund for more than a decade,” he told me. “This was my life. But this rigidity and ideological purity is really going to hurt progress. I did the climate bills last year, and these same groups were celebrating that. But that means nothing unless we can deliver. That was the what; this is the how.”
The environmental movement is dealing with a bit of dog-that-caught-the-car confusion these days. Hundreds of billions of dollars are pouring into infrastructure for clean energy, and decarbonization targets that were once out of the question are being etched into law. That’s particularly true in California, which has committed to being carbon neutral, and to running its electricity grid on 100 percent clean energy, by 2045.
Hitting these goals requires California to almost quadruple the amount of electricity it can generate — and shift what it now gets from polluting fuels to clean sources. That means turning huge areas of land over to solar farms, wind turbines and geothermal systems. It means building the transmission lines to move that energy from where it’s made to where it’s needed. It means dotting the landscape with enough electric vehicle charging stations to make the state’s proposed ban on cars with internal combustion engines possible. Taken as a whole, it’s a construction task bigger than anything the state has ever attempted, and it needs to be completed at a speed that nothing in the state’s recent history suggests is possible.
California has become notorious not for what it builds, but for what it fails to build. And Newsom knows it. “I watched as a mayor and then a lieutenant governor and now governor as years became decades on high-speed rail,” he told me. “People are losing trust and confidence in our ability to build big things. People look at me all the time and ask, ‘What the hell happened to the California of the ’50s and ’60s?’”
But Newsom’s immediate problem is the Biden administration. Because it, too, has become focused on how difficult it has become to build — and not just in California. “These delays are pervasive at every level of government — federal, state and local,” John Podesta, a senior adviser to President Biden on clean energy, said in a speech last month. “We got so good at stopping projects that we forgot how to build things in America.”
The Biden administration is pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into decarbonization. And it wants to make sure it gets a return on that money. So it’s making states compete for federal grants, and one way it’s judging them is on whether the state has made it easy to build. That has become an issue for California.
“We’re agnostic as to where these investments go,” Jennifer Granholm, the secretary of energy, told the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. But California is competing against states that have done permitting reform, and they’re making that case. Her advice was blunt: “Whatever you can do to help bring the costs down to make yourselves competitive and to speed things up I think would go a long way to making more manufacturing come to this area.”
Adding to Newsom’s problems is that California’s recent surpluses have turned to deficits. He needs federal money, and lots of it, to make good on his climate promises. If California falls shorts on those grants, it falls short of its goals. “We’re going to lose billions and billions of dollars in the status quo,” he told me. “The state can’t backfill that. And we’re losing some of it to red states! I’m indignant about that. The beneficiaries of a lot of these dollars are red states that don’t give a damn about these issues, and they’re getting the projects. We’re not getting the money because our rules are getting in the way.”
The breadth of the opposition, and the emotion in Newsom’s defense, left me a bit unprepared for his actual permitting package, which is a collection of mostly modest, numbingly specific policies. When a lawsuit is brought under the California Environmental Quality Act, should all emails sent between agency staffers be part of the record, or only those communications seen by the decision makers? Should environmental litigation be confined to 270 days for certain classes of infrastructure? Should the California Department of Transportation contract jobs out by type, or does it need to run a new contracting process for each task? Should 15 endangered species currently classified as “fully protected” be reclassified as “threatened” to make building near them less onerous? And on it goes.
This isn’t a root-and-branch reform of California’s environmental protection bills. It doesn’t follow recent housing reforms that use statewide planning processes to bypass local governments. The proposed changes to the California Environmental Quality Act are arguably more modest than the changes made, with barely any notice, to the National Environmental Policy Act as part of the debt ceiling deal.
Much of the fight is being framed as a dispute over process. Newsom, as he often does, is pushing the package through an expedited process. It could pass in mere weeks. The opposition groups say that moving so fast “excludes the public and stakeholders and avoids open and transparent deliberation of important and complicated policies.”
Newsom rolls his eyes at this. Those same groups, he told me, “had our back when we passed the environmental bills last year through the same process. And those goals mean nothing without this.”
I talked with David Pettit, a senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council. His organization opposes Newsom’s package, but he didn’t describe it as particularly consequential. He mostly sounded puzzled. “I don’t think this’ll let the governor go to the feds and say, ‘look how quickly we can build.’”
Pettit has filed plenty of lawsuits under the California Environmental Quality Act, and he thought the courts would ignore Newsom’s attempt to speed up their rulings. “It’s the judges who determine if it’s feasible or not,” he told me. And he seemed offended by Newsom’s effort to short-circuit the process. “Wouldn’t it be better to bring everybody to the table and go through the Legislature?” he asked. “Get the environmental justice groups, the tribes, hash out what this means? It could be done in regular session by the end of year.”
There’s merit to the argument that Newsom is trying to rush his package through the Legislature. But it’s also clear that the groups opposing his package don’t want to use a slower, broader process as an opportunity to strengthen the package’s provisions. They want to use it as an opportunity to weaken or block Newsom’s package.
The coalition’s letter worries that Newsom’s package “reduces application of environmental review,” that it “would undermine the California Endangered Species Act” and so on. The California Environmental Justice Alliance sent me a statement that said, in bold type, “Requiring a court to resolve an action within 270 days to the extent feasible is harmful to low-income and EJ” — which stands for environmental justice — “communities.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that.
Here’s the hard part: All of these concerns are justified, at least some of the time. Laws like the California Environmental Quality Act have been used to block countless harmful projects. A faster, more streamlined process could make it easier to build solar farms and rail systems, but it could also make it easier to build infrastructure that communities have reason to oppose.
“I come at this trying to take care of and represent my clients who live next door to a proposed development and want a species protected and don’t want more highways jammed through,” Pettit told me.
The claim Newsom is making is not that all development is good but that development has become too easy to stop or at least delay. Is he right? You can say it depends on the project in question. But policymakers have to set broad rules. The harder development is to stop, the likelier it is that bad projects will be built. The easier development is to stop, the likelier it is that good projects will be blocked. And even that oversimplifies it. Often, the question isn’t whether a project is good or bad, but who it helps and who bears its costs. A wind farm may be good for the state but a genuine annoyance to its neighbors.
I’m a little skeptical that Newsom’s package is consequential enough to merit the controversy it has created. But the fight isn’t just about this package. Everyone involved believes there are many permitting reforms yet to come, as the world warms, and the clock ticks down on California’s goals, and the federal government begins to apply more pressure.
These are the beginning stages of a transition from a liberalism that spends to a liberalism that builds. It’s going to be messy. Until now, progressives have been mostly united in the fight against climate change. They wanted more money for clean energy and more ambitious targets for phasing out fossil fuels and they got it. Now that new energy system needs to be built, and fast. And progressives are nowhere near agreement on how to do that.