Update 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,
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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
Quick 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.
“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.