Brown Rolls Back Coastal Act Suspension Order


Jerry BrownUpdate June 6: Gov. Brown reversed his order suspending the power of the Coastal Commission late Friday, a classic move of dumping disagreeable news at the end of the week, timed to land in the dead zone between when reporters have left for the weekend and before everyone’s on to something new on Monday.

Calbuzz gets results. His new proclamation is here.

Pick up earlier story: California environmental advocates were pleased when Jerry Brown moved swiftly on an emergency proclamation to expedite clean up of the Refugio Oil Spill in Santa Barbara.

Then they read the fine print.

In a precedent-setting move, the governor in his order quietly suspended the landmark California Coastal Act. With the action, Brown crippled the authority of the Coastal Commission to ensure that Plains All-American Pipeline meets the coastal law’s toughest-in-the-nation environmental standards in cleaning up and restoring damaged beaches and nearby habitat. Plains is the company that owns the pipeline which ruptured and spilled more than 100,000 gallons of oil into the ocean on May 19.

“It makes no sense to suspend the very law that was created by a citizen initiative, in response to the massive 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, to address situations like this,” Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network, said of Brown’s order,

susan“If anything, this is the time to make certain the Coastal Act’s protective policies are administered and enforced,” she added.

So far, the spill had damaged about 40 miles of coastline, killed more than 100 birds and mammals and closed more than 100 square miles of fishing area and two state beaches.

Late Tuesday, a coalition of more than two dozen environmental organizations statewide called upon the governor to rescind the suspension of the Coastal Act.

In a letter to Brown, the groups said restoring the authority of the Coastal Commission  in connection with the spill, is necessary in order to ensure clean up is “undertaken with environmental sensitivity and with the guarantee of full restoration and mitigation once the emergency has passed.”

linda-krop“The oil spill resulted from a weakening of oversight of the pipeline,” said Linda Krop, chief counsel of the Environmental Defense Center and one of the state’s most experienced and respected lawyers in dealing with coastal issues.  “Now is not the time to exacerbate the damage by weakening the Coastal Act requirements for mitigation and restoration.”

Low-ball red tape: In announcing his May 20 order, Brown declared that it “cuts red tape.” It was telling that his announcement didn’t highlight the suspension; he low-balled his undercutting of the commission, tucking that language into section 5 of the document — below eight “whereas” clauses and one “therefore.”

Evan Westrup, Brown’s press secretary, referred questions about the proclamation to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, one of several state agencies within the so-called “Unified Command” which is overseeing operations at Refugio beach.

Deputy Director Kelly Huston of that office said the Coastal Commission is being “notified” about the work being done under the order, adding that Brown’s exemption action was necessary “in enabling the most effective response by those responsible for emergency response.”

“It’s the intent of the administration to ensure the Coastal Commission is actively involved when and where necessary,” he said.

Melissa Boggs, senior environmental scientist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, also has been working with the inter-governmental spill team. She said that the clean up is being carried out carefully and with full consideration for “preserving important resources.”

spillWithin the environmental community, however, the Coastal Commission’s robust and rigorous regulations long have been recognized as the gold standard.

Moreover, the environmental coalition in its letter notes that the commission already has a process for verbally and immediately granting emergency waivers and permits, although the need to move with great dispatch was a purported raison d’être for the governor’s suspension order.

Had the commission led the process, Plains eventually would have had to comply with the state’s most stringent regulations for marine, beach, wetlands and other habitat restoration; now the company possibly could elude them.

“This is the first time in history that the Coastal Act and the authority of the Coastal Commission has been suspended,” said Jordan, whose organization is based in Santa Barbara.

“Given the provisions in the Act to act expeditiously in the event of the emergency, this suspension was ill-advised, unnecessary and has set a significant adverse statewide precedent that should not be underestimated.”

Oil-Spill-Bird-lc-630x420Sand and cobble: At first glance, the dispute might seem mere political wrangling, but there is considerable substance to it.

Clean-up and healing of the extensive environmental damage Plains inflicted requires management of a maddeningly complex process, which includes interlocking systems and sciences, from biology, geology and administrative permit law to metallurgy, pipeline engineering and an array of health and safety regulations.

The size and shape of berms, the amount of beach kelp available to arthropods that feed baby plovers, even the granularity of sand and cobble, are a few of thousands of factors involved in restoring the coastline and nearby areas.

Who controls that process is significant, because it determines what environmental standards Plains must meet; California’s broadest, deepest, most specific and time-tested benchmarks and guidelines derive from the Coastal Act, administered by its commission.

“With all due respect to the good work of the other state agencies in addressing this oil spill, the Coastal Act is not ‘red tape,’” said Jordan, “and no other state agency is empowered to enforce its legal mandate and protective policies.”

125_jerry_brown_toutQuick history lesson: As every school child knows, the law was spawned by passage of Proposition 20, a 1972 initiative that, for the first time, treated California’s 1,057-mile coastline as a system, not a patchwork of stretches governed and shaped by the whims of local politicians.

It passed 55-to-45 percent, following a series of events that threatened the coast: the disastrous 1969 Santa Barbara spill, energy company efforts to pack the coastline with nuclear plants and development proposals for hoards of houses, hotels and condos.

(Irony worth noting: then-Secretary of State Jerry Brown put the measure on the ballot despite the threat of litigation by major corporations that opposed it; he later boosted Prop. 20 by publicizing major campaign contributions against the measure from special interests; in 1976, a young Governor Brown signed the legislation that permanently enshrined the initiative as the California Coastal Act. But we digress).

This just in: Of course this is not the first time Brown in recent years has pushed major environmental law aside by executive action.

He recently suspended the keystone California Environmental Quality Act in his emergency proclamation on the drought; several years ago, he famously suspended CEQA on behalf of developers of a proposed NFL stadium in L.A.

14.4-Million-Elegant-Mediterranean-Mansion-in-Santa-Barbara-California“The governor has a penchant for putting loopholes into important environmental laws,” said Patrick Sullivan, climate media director of the Oakland-based Biological Diversity Center. “He’s not respectful of the Coastal Act, the Coastal Commission or CEQA.”

Secret Calbuzz bottom line memo to Gandalf: Hey man, the value of our Santa Barbara-based World Marketing Headquarters and Calbuzzard Retirement Bungalow could plunge if this mess isn’t cleaned up right. Let’s get our best team on the field, okay?

A version of this column will publish in the Santa Barbara Independent edition of June 4.

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There are 11 comments for this post

  1. avatar sqrjn says:

    So does Hackenflack have an opinion? Is Brown right that his Unified Command will do a better job with the CEQA suspended? Obviously Brown would probably love being elected Dictator Perpetuo but I doubt he has any devious plan to undermine the holy costal commission.

  2. avatar 4oceans says:

    It isn’t easy to even figure out “who” the “unified command” is. Usually, it involves the the Coast Guard & the polluter, and at least one other agency. The refugioresponse.com website is unusually unclear on the concept of just who is in charge. In this case, you can bet that Western States Petro. lobbying group instructed Brown to void out the CCC in favor of letting Plains work directly with the compliant Coast Guard. On their website, they’ve got a laundry list of government agencies…. including Plains Oil but notably absent is the CCC.


  3. avatar 4oceans says:

    And they call them “clients.” Eeeee Gad…..

  4. avatar pjhackenflack says:

    Today’s mail brought a cheery card from Plains CEO Greg Armstrong, apparently sent to every household in SB, letting us know how sorry he is for all the trouble they caused and how hard they’re all working to make things right. Boo fuckin’ hoo. Also thanked a long list of agencies, none of them the Coastal Commission.

  5. avatar JohnF says:

    Is the Suspension for a period of time? Say the amount of time needed to complete preliminary clean-up? If so I can possibly see the rationale, even if I do not agree with it. Clean up efforts would require a permit to do the things needed to complete this task. Getting permits is time consuming and the actual work could commerce earlier if this process is eliminated. If there is no temporary time period, then it is just a power grab away from the Coastal Commission. Shame on Jerry.

    • avatar pjhackenflack says:

      John F – No, the suspension applies throughout Plains’ performance of clean-up, mitigation and restoration of damaged beaches and other habitat. Here’s how it’s been explained to us: In order to begin the project of cleaning up the beach and water, bring heavy equipment, put stuff in the water, etc., Plains needed either a permit or a waiver of a permit; because of the suspension the Coastal Commission was not empowered to give them one – although they have a process for doing so on an immediate, emergency basis (which they employed in the Torch/Platform Irene spill in 1997) – so the Santa Barbara County planning department did. Had Plains received a permit from the CC, the company would have had to return to the commission, which would have had the power to decide if the clean up, etc. had been done in conformance with the Coastal Act. Since the commission was not the permitting agency, however, they now lack jurisdiction over the clean-up, and Plains would have a good case against the state if the commission attempted to find them in non-compliance. Should Brown lift the suspension, the commission could regain some authority over mitigation and restoration, although that’s legally murky. More work for lawyers. In any case, according to our sources, Brown has shown no intention to do so, at least as of yet, although we’re told Hannah Beth-Jackson, SB’s state senator, is working to get him to do. We didn’t get into it in the piece, but Brown’s disdain for the commission is an open secret in Sacramento. It’s unclear to us why that is: some people say it’s because the late Peter Douglas, a take-no-prisoners guy who headed the CCC from the time of its creation until shortly before his death in 2012, didn’t play well with Jerry during his first gubernatorial incarnation and Gandalf is now taking his revenge; others claim his anti-commission feelings go back to the ’70s when Linda Ronstadt got turned down for a permit for a deck she wanted to build on her beach side property; there’s also a school of thought that, as with CEQA, Brown genuinely believes, in contrast to his earlier years as a hard-core environmentalist, that there are too many regulations standing in the way of development. At this stage, all of that is speculation and gossip, at least to us. One thing’s for sure: it’s budget season and the commissioners and staff don’t want to be out there picking a fight with the governor. One more in the weeds note: Santa Barbara County has a Local Coastal Program (LCP) which has been approved by the commission as consistent with the Coastal Act, to guide local development near the coastal zone; since they were the permitting agency, they can exercise some authority over Plains, but only from the mean high tide line to the bluff where the ruptured pipeline is located, although how much is unclear. However, the area from mean high tide line out to the state’s three mile limit is routinely the jurisdiction of the commission, which is out of the picture. Dr. H believes 4oceans makes some good points above about the governor, the Coast Guard and the Western Petroleum Association.

  6. avatar cbarney says:

    can the governor suspend any california act at all?

    • avatar pjhackenflack says:

      Cliff – we’re not sure. However, all you have to do is look at Brown attacking as “stupid” anyone who disagrees with him on his Delta Transfer plant and it’s not hard to feel that he feels free to do pretty much whatever he wants at this stage.

  7. avatar Bob Mulholland says:

    The real issue is the Texas firm is caught and will have to spend $60 million and most likely more to fix things. Why did a Rick Perry based firm ignore common sense and not maintain an oil pipeline near a Santa Barbara beach? They’re Texans! Governor Brown will make sure they pay!

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