06/12/2012 01:46 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2012

Rolling Back CEQA for High-Speed Rail Sets a Terrible Precedent

California Governor Jerry Brown is angling for a variance on the state's landmark environmental
protection law to push through a project cherished by environmentalists. But the move isn't just an attempt to rob Green Peter to pay Greener Paul; it also establishes a terrible precedent, one that will allow the implementation of any massive public works boondoggle without sound environmental review.

Brown wants to expedite ground-breaking for California's $100 billion high-speed rail system -- a speedy eco-train designed to whisk passengers from Los Angeles to the Bay Area in three hours, reduce freeway gridlock, and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. His idea: exempt the project from review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), cornerstone legislation that has protected the state's land, water, and air for 41 years.

The impulse is understandable. The high-speed rail will bring gobs of federal money and thousands of jobs into the economically tarnished Golden State. It is a sexy project that burnishes California's reputation as a national leader in the development and adoption of new technologies. And it will stand as a legacy for the septuagenarian Brown, a monument to his progressive leadership. The detailed review required by CEQA will take time and rigorous inquiry; Brown doesn't have much of the former and little patience for the latter.

Still, that's no reason to shred CEQA. Despite ascetic proclivities in his personal life, Brown has
always maintained a somewhat imperial posture throughout his political career; he thus seems deeply irked that picayune environmental regulations are hobbling implementation of his great works. But CEQA was specifically designed to address programs like the high-speed rail, a gigantic project that entails tremendous environmental impacts. This is precisely the time to unleash CEQA, not restrain it.

Moreover, the attempt to exempt high-speed rail from CEQA is just the beginning. Brown and
his allies in the California legislature apparently are planning to use the same strategy to secure
a "conveyance system" around the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay. That used to be called a "peripheral canal" in the old days -- a giant pipe designed to shunt water from the Sacramento River to the corporate farms of the western San Joaquin Valley.

California voters turned down a 1982 statewide initiative to build such a project, and for a very
good reason -- it would devastate salmon, Dungeness crab, striped bass and other valuable fisheries in the Bay/Delta estuary. Brown, however, seems determined to "solve" California's water woes one way or another, and he has fixated on a peripheral canal as the only possible solution, the mewling of his erstwhile supporters in the environmental and commercial fishing communities be damned.

A legacy is a wonderful thing to leave, and one can empathize with Brown's desire to depart on a dramatic note. But if he's not careful, he won't be remembered for leaving high-tech, green-tinted infrastructure projects that benefit the people and aid the biosphere. He'll be recalled as the guy who neutered California's fundamental environmental law, poured mega-dollars into the money bins of corporate agriculture, and destroyed the most biologically productive estuary on the West Coast.