Frustrated by environmental reviews, businesses are employing a new tactic to speed development: asking legislators for exemptions from the rules. The latest example appears to be an expansion of Chevron's Richmond refinery.
The refinery's fate is tied up in closed-door talks involving the oil company, environmentalists, local leaders and Sacramento legislators trying to resolve a yearslong quarrel over the project on San Francisco Bay. Jobs, air pollution and tax revenues for blue-collar Richmond are on the line.
This high-stakes impasse could draw in another feature: gutting the landmark California Environmental Quality Act. It's a major brake on development and a major opportunity for public input, requiring that significant projects document impacts and study alternatives. Yes, it can take time, but, no, it doesn't kill worthy plans.
The issue of dumping CEQA has surfaced on the edges of the Richmond refinery debate. Because all of the concerned parties are pledged to negotiate in private, no one will officially confirm that the exemption is on the table. A Chevron spokesman declined to confirm or deny that the firm would push for the review waiver.
If such an end run occurs, it won't be a surprise. Seizing on a record jobless rate and a worried Legislature, business groups see a chance to upend the CEQA process. Last year, Sacramento leaders exempted a proposed football stadium in the business-park outback of Los Angeles County. This month, a plan to allow big-box retailers moving into vacant stores to skip CEQA narrowly lost in Sacramento.
The Chevron refinery expansion could be the latest hardball test of whether the state has rules that stand - or standards that can be waived with the right number of votes.
Since 2005, Chevron has sought approvals to enlarge its Point Richmond facility. Environmental groups fought the plans, claiming that the company's description of the project fell short. This year, an appeals court agreed with critics about the insufficiency of the environmental report.
Since then, an all-sides mediation effort has gone on to work out a settlement. Assemblyman Mike Feuer, a Los Angeles Democrat, and leaders of the Assembly and Senate have presided.
As cumbersome as this path might be, it's infinitely preferable to the alternative of overriding an environmental law that ensures that Californians can see - and comment on - major projects in or near their communities.
This article appeared on page A - 19 of the San Francisco Chronicle