Public Input To The California Environmental Quality Act CEQA

Introduction

According to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) guidelines, public participation is an important component of the CEQA process. CEQA is a statute passed in California in 1970 to oversee California state policy of environmental protection (CEQA, n.d.). It plays the role of disclosing to the public within California State the substantial environmental impacts of a proposed project by preparing an Environmental Impact Report, the Initial Study or a Negative Declaration. For the CEQA process to be effective, it as to engage the public through active public participation in various ways by doing more than the common posting of public notices as well as hosting customary public hearings. The main intent of engaging the public in the CEQA process is to enable the public to get informed as well as get the opportunity to be part of the project that can affect them or their interests (CEQA, n.d.). There are several ways in which the public can be involved and get to comment on the CEQA review process. However, public participation has been criticized for offering too much power to nay-sayers as well as the NIMBY-ist interests. Despite the criticism, public involvement is encouraged in the CEQA review process. This makes the topic about public participation in CEQA to warrant a discussion to determine the role and the importance of public participation in CEQA. The discussion will also help in recommending how the role of public participation should be in CEQA. This paper will discuss the possible outcomes of public participation in CEQA and recommend how the role of the public should be in CEQA. 

Background

In 1970, the California Environmental Quality Act was signed into law. The provisions of CEQA included; it needs all public agencies that undertake or approve projects to carry out an environmental analysis to find out if the project effects could be having a big impact on the environment (CEQA, n.d.). Since the agency has the principal authority to oversee a project, it is its responsibility to conduct an environmental analysis. Moreover, the Office of Environmental Analysis, Regulation and Audits (OEARA) has the responsibility of reviewing and approving CEQA documents that are prepared by programs, as well as offering general CEQA technical guidance as well as policy direction. CEQA acknowledges public participation as an important part of it. In a certain court case in 1986 regarding the role of public participation in CEQA, it was stressed that the public is recognized and granted a privileged position in the process of CEQA based on the perception that the people are capable of making significant contribution to environmental protection as well as on the idea of democratic decision making (Gualco-Nelson, 2017). Moreover, all proposed projects in which the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) has discretionary decision-making authority are subjected to CEQA suppose they possibly affect the environment (Mihaly, 2009). In essence, the DTSC approval actions that need CEQA review to entail: permit modification, pilot studies, remedial action plans, interim remedial measures, facility closures plans, corrective action, removal action work plans, and facility permit determinations. 

One of CEQA’s main objectives is to incorporate public involvement in its process of planning projects. CEQA review process helps to provide information, disclose environmental impacts and also allow the public to take part in the environmental reviewing process using scoping, public hearings, CEQA document public review, and public notice. Therefore, public involvement is regarded to be an important aspect of CEQA. The public is encouraged to take part in the environmental reviewing process, make requests to be given notice about the review process, monitoring newspapers for formal announcements as well as submitting comments to the agency (Exhibit, 2019). In addition to that, agencies are needed to take into consideration the comments obtained from the scoping process when preparing the EIR draft as well as responding to public comments within the eventual EIR. 

Possible outcomes

Public participation in CEQA’s possible outcome is that it will lead to increased quality of decision output by giving decision-makers with suitable value-based and experimental knowledge. Essentially, experimental knowledge is on that is based on common sense as well as a personal experience that is established by individuals. Whereas value-based knowledge is derived from social interests with regards to the views of social values. Therefore, public participation in the CEQA review will facilitate the review process with important information that is based on real-life experiences and social views that are important in shaping the decision made by decision-makers of the CEQA (Reynolds, 2015). Essentially, the public is the most suitable in obtaining information that concerns the aspirations as well as the values of the individuals impacted by a project. Integrating public values through public participation will help to supplement cognitive knowledge as well as balance the rationalities of the CEQA. The public also will present their environmental values to the CEQA review process and therefore leading to an integrative representation of the values of the society. 

Public involvement in the CEQA review will also improve the quality of decision output through testing the strength and validity of information from other sources. Public participation enhances the decision output quality through testing the strength and validity of the information that the public officials have gathered and presented from other sources (Gualco-Nelson, 2017). Public participation is important since it will help to verify the information since proponents of a project who only focus on getting the project approved are most probable to ignore the negative effects of the project and focus on the economic benefit of the project. Public participation will assist in verifying information about a project suppose the project proponents are contested. 

Public participation is one of the key requirements of CEQA review. Therefore, involving the public in the CEQA review process will legitimize the entire decision-making process, offering legitimacy to the CEQA agencies and enhancing project implementation. Generating legitimacy is the most essential role that public participation does in the CEQA review process (Reynolds, 2015). Moreover, public participation is very important nowadays since decision-makers who tend to be unable to control the society rely on the support of the public since they are under control of critical resources like land as well as their ability to protest. Increasingly, it is essential to involve the public in any public policymaking process. Failure to involve the public in a policymaking process is likely to be considered to be illegitimate. By active public involvement, people will establish a sense of ownership in the CEQA review process and also the outcome, therefore regarded to be legitimate (CEQA, n.d.). Therefore, public participants need to be granted the opportunity of expressing their ideas and values which will be considered by decision-makers. To add to it, procedural transparency is essential in increasing legitimacy. The CEQA review process has to be transparent by involving the public and also taking into consideration the values and views of the public which consequentially render the review process to be legitimate. This will also help to avoid protests that arise due to illegitimacy due to lack of public involvement and this might delay or completely stop the implementation of a project. 

Public involvement is likely to contribute to conflict identification and resolution before making the ultimate decision and therefore enhancing project implementation. Due to the diversity of people in the society, interests as well as project proponents, conflicts are inevitable (Gualco-Nelson, 2017). Also, because of the complexity of issues incorporated in conflicting opinions and also environmental assessment are inevitable. By involving the public in the review process, the conflict resolution process can be established. The involvement of the public will offer mechanisms identifying and resolving conflicts prior to final decision making. Public participation does not only helps to avoid conflict but also offers an opportunity for debating different interests in the public. Essentially, public participation will assist in developing support for the project by minimizing the alienation of an individual and bring all as a group to resolve conflict effectively. 

By not involving the public in the CEQA review process, will make it hard for the lead agencies in expanding the public understanding of reviews being made. Leaving out the public from participating will make public awareness of the process not achieved (Reynolds, 2015). The public will have little knowledge about it and this might strike protests for lack of inclusion in the process. The public is the ones who are most affected by processes or projects and therefore when left out in critical issues such as this that affect them, they will tend to complain and possibly protest against it. 

More conflicts will arise if the public is not involved in the process. The public has different interests, values, and opinions, and therefore needs a platform that can enable them to collaboratively debate and share their opinions to come to one mutual understanding (Gualco-Nelson, 2017). By denying the public this opportunity, it will create divisiveness which will intensify conflicts. This will slow or even stop the implementation of projects. 

Failing to involve the public will decrease the opportunity of people providing meaningful and effectual input to CEQA. The public is the ones who have resourceful information that helps in shaping the decision-making process of CEQA. Therefore, lack of public participation will lead to poor decision making which can further halt the implementation of projects. 

Policy recommendations

The role of the public in CEQA should be to alter the distribution of power in society. This will help in empowering the marginalized groups and individuals. This is because it applies the principles of democracy that the distribution of power within the society that exists is allowing the public to take part in decision making (Mihaly, 2009). The primary goal of CEQA is to make sure that local agencies take into consideration the impact of their projects on the environment. The public should play this role by altering the power of the society to include all members of the society to participate in the decision-making process of CEQA to ensure that the impacts of the projects on the environment are considered. 

The public should play the role of enabling those that are impacted by a decision to influence the decision (Gualco-Nelson, 2017). The public should play the role of expressing their democracy which is the right to be consulted, informed as well as express their views on issues affecting them. Because environmental decisions impact the quality of life of everyone, the public should participate in CEQA to express their concerns. 

The public needs to play the role of enabling deliberation among all participants, therefore leading to social learning. The public has individuals with different values, interests, and perspectives (Reynolds, 2015). Their participation enables everyone involved to learn a lot as well as to develop the process of collective action. Ideas are shared, issues discussed and possible solutions are arrived at through social debates and discussion that are substantive. This facilitates the identification of effective, socially acceptable plans for mitigating environmental impacts and also identifying opportunities.