The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is California’s charter for environmental protection. CEQA serves to disclose a project’s environmental impacts to decision-makers and to the public, identify ways to reduce and prevent environmental damage by providing alternatives or mitigation, and to enhance public participation in the planning process. The following summarizes the CEQA basics or “CEQA 101.”
How did CEQA originate?
CEQA was enacted by Governor Ronald Reagan in 1970 after the environmental revolution sparked the public’s awareness of human impact on the natural world. Find the complete CEQA Statutes and Guidelines here.
Who participates in the CEQA process?
The key participants in CEQA are comprised of the lead agency, project applicants, responsible agencies, concerned citizens or organizations, courts, and environmental consultants. The lead agency holds primary responsibility for the project (i.e., a city planning department). The project applicant is a private or public entity that will carry out the project. Responsible agencies have approval power over the project and provide input to how the project is implemented and its mitigation. An example of a responsible agency is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Concerned citizens or organizations provide input to the lead agency by raising fair arguments through public comment. The comments from the public can influence the level of CEQA analysis that the lead agency performs. The courts decide disputes that arise under CEQA. Environmental consultants can be hired by the lead agency to write the CEQA documentation, or they can aid concerned citizens or organizations with the public comment process.
What is considered a “project” under CEQA?
CEQA defines a project as the whole of the action, which has the potential for resulting in either a direct or reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment and consists of an activity that is directly undertaken by a governmental agency.
What are the different documents under CEQA?
The initial study is a preliminary analysis of the project prepared by the lead agency. The initial study provides the lead agency with information to be used as the basis for determining which CEQA environmental document to prepare for the project. The initial study consists of a detailed project description, a description of the environmental setting, the potential environmental impact of the project, and mitigation measures for any potentially significant impacts. The initial study checklist can be found in the CEQA Guidelines (Appendix G).
A negative declaration is applicable when a project will not have a significant effect on the environment. A negative declaration is a written statement that includes a project description, project location, identification of project proponent, an attached copy of the initial study documenting the reasons for the findings, and a notice of intent to adopt a negative declaration. CEQA Guidelines §15070-15075 describe the negative declaration process.
Mitigated Negative Declaration
A mitigated negative declaration is applicable when the initial study has identified potentially significant effects on the environment, but the effects can be mitigated to a point where no significant effect on the environment would occur. A mitigated negative declaration consists of a project description, project location, identification of project proponent, an attached copy of the initial study documenting the reasons for the finding, mitigation measures, and a notice of intent to adopt a mitigated negative declaration. CEQA Guidelines §15070-15075 describe the mitigated negative declaration process.
Environmental Impact Report
An environmental impact report is applicable when the initial study indicates that the project has potential to have significant effects on the environment. An environmental impact report discusses ways to mitigate or avoid the effects. An environmental impact report serves to inform decision-makers and the public of a project’s significant environmental effects and ways to reduce them. It also demonstrates to the public that the environment is being considered and protected by demonstrating that the agency has considered the ecological impacts of its action. There are many different types of environmental impact reports that address specific projects, plans, policies, and programs. The environmental impact report process is described in the CEQA Guidelines §15080-15097.
So, my activity is considered a “project” under CEQA. Now what?
Once you have determined that your activity falls into the definition of a project under CEQA, you can begin determining whether an exemption applies or if a negative declaration, a mitigated negative declaration, or environmental impact report needs to be prepared. A project qualifies for exemption if statutory or categorical exemptions apply to the project.
Statutory exemptions are projects that are excluded from CEQA by legislature regardless of impacts (for example, the Olympic games, emergency projects, and transit priority projects). Statutory exemptions are described in CEQA Guidelines §15206-15285. Categorical exemptions require discretionary exclusions. These exemptions apply to classes of projects (for example, Class 1- existing facilities, Class 3- new construction of small structures). Categorical exemptions are described in CEQA Guidelines §15300-15333. If either a statutory or categorical exemption applies to the project, then a notice of exemption is performed and the CEQA process for this project is complete.
If no exemptions apply to the project, the next step is to determine if the project is adequately covered by a previous environmental impact report. If that is the case, a finding of no new impact or a mitigated negative declaration is prepared for the project. If the project is not adequately covered by a previous environmental impact report, the next step is to determine if the initial study shows that the project will have no significant impact. If the project will have no significant effects a negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration is prepared. If the initial study determines that the project will have significant effects, then an environmental impact report is required.
Navigating the CEQA process can be complex and daunting. Scout is ready to help guide you through the process. For further inquiries about CEQA, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.