Category Archives: Environmental protection

Why the Wiener housing bills will never work—and could destroy the coast. A detailed primer

[Note from BenIndy Contributor: This article explains what many have been saying about the “sham” of the developers’ machine and how Californians have succumbed to California’s oldest story: extraction. Namely, the extraction of gold, timber, water and land, but masked by an effective YIMBY campaign (Yes, In My Back Yard). These bills represent a statewide, one-size-fits-all solution to multiple problems. They are being pushed by those who will profit and embraced by those who want to do the right thing. But it will wreck California. This article explains the hard facts that are not addressed by the media. For fifty years and more, California has had progressive and good land-use planning processes. I don’t like sprawl development, but at least we didn’t build “anything, anywhere,” as the development community desired. Instead, we had goals, policies and standards, and the most powerful planning tool of all: the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires state and local agencies within California to analyze and disclose how proposed projects would impact the environment – and adopt measures to mitigate those impacts. If developers are frustrated with meeting these goals and policies, what better way to clear their path than to demonize CEQA? And so here we are. The best coastal protection on the West Coast is about to be castrated. And for what? To help flip investors’ portfolios to suit their timing for profits. Meanwhile, the rest of us would like to see the wage gap addressed, capital gains taxes raised to discourage land-portfolio profiteering and, to address the disgrace of all disgraces, more housing for people who need it. What on earth are we thinking? We each have the ability to dig deeper, and yet we seem drunk on the idea that resisting development without goals, policies and standards is a reflection of NIMBY selfishness (Not In My Back Yard), and very ready to trust that the rush to develop reflects the benevolence of a development and investor community that is in actuality far more interested in profits than in progress.]

An economist explains the reality of the housing market, economic inequality, developer profits, threats to the environment—and why the housing mandates don’t ‘pencil out.’

48Hills, by Michael Barnes, March 12, 2024

Coastal zone residents will soon discover how dysfunctional the latest California Regional Housing Assessment has become.

The RHNA (pronounced REE-na) process, and the housing elements based on it, have always been bureaucratic, expensive, and ineffective. But thanks to the intervention of state Senator Scott Wiener, RHNA has been twisted into a profit-making tool for corporate developers. Across the state, including the coastal zone, cities and counties are being forced to make drastic revisions to their zoning ordinances and other land-use plans.

What Senator Wiener and his allies have managed to accomplish is remarkable. If the state senator had proposed a bill to his fellow legislators that would force many of the state’s cities to rezone for bigger buildings—and then would require cities to rubber-stamp the new building permits—he would not have found the votes. Yet he has managed to accomplish the same thing in a piecemeal fashion.

Sen. Anthony Wiener. |

In what follows, I’ll provide my perspective on RHNA and the housing element process, explain how Sacramento has corrupted them, and explore the implications for the coast.

The website of the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) states:

Since 1969, California has required that all local governments (cities and counties) adequately plan to meet the housing needs of everyone in the community. This process starts with the state determining how much housing at a variety of affordability levels is needed for each region in the state, and then regional governments develop a methodology to allocate that housing need to local governments. California’s local governments then adopt housing plans (called housing elements) as part of their “general plan” (also required by the state) to show how the jurisdiction will meet local housing needs.

California cities are currently in the midst of the sixth RHNA cycle, which for most jurisdictions started in 2021–22 and will end in 2029–30. Here’s how it works:

Step 1: The California Department of Finance provides detailed projections of population and households that span the eight-year RHNA period. These projections are passed along to the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Step 2: HCD starts with the household projections and estimates the number of housing units required to house them. HCD adds housing units to cover older units that will be torn down and to provide enough vacant units to allow housing turnover to take place smoothly. It may make additional adjustments. HCD then allocates the statewide estimates to different regions and passes them along to regional Councils of Government.

Step 3: The regional councils next allocate their allotment to cities and unincorporated areas in their region. For the Bay Area, the council of government is the Association of Bay Area Governments. ABAG allocates household units to all nine counties in the region and 101 municipalities (note that San Francisco is both a city and a county).

Step: 4: In their housing elements, cities and counties then plan for where the additional housing can be built. They must modify zoning if there is insufficient space for new housing.

Creating a housing element is labor-intensive and requires specialized expertise. Many cities hire planning consultants to assist them. I spoke with one highly regarded consultant who confided that their office was limiting housing element work because the “process was broken.” Although the criticism was heartfelt, it is more accurate to say that the process never worked well. This had become obvious by 2003, two decades years ago. The introduction to a 2003 report from the Public Policy Institute of California on the state’s housing element policy stated:

During the 1990s, noncompliant communities were just as likely to expand their housing stock as communities that complied with the law. Furthermore, when other factors were held constant, noncompliance was not a significant predictor of the rate of multifamily development.

In past decades, the housing element process didn’t make much difference. For market-rate (above-moderate income) housing in the fifth RHNA cycle, the majority of cities met their numerical targets, but often not in locations the housing elements emphasized. When it came to subsidized affordable (lower-income) housing, the targets were seldom met because the required subsidies were beyond the means of most cities, and state and federal funding was scarce.

In 2017, things changed. The state Legislature passed a housing bill package of 15 bills (links here and here) and Governor Jerry Brown signed them. Probably the most influential and controversial was Senate Bill 35, authored in 2017 by San Francisco Senator Scott Wiener. The bill streamlined multifamily housing project approvals ministerially (a euphemism for rubber-stamping applications without public hearings) in cities that failed to issue building permits for their share of the RHNA housing allocations. The bill applied throughout the vast majority of the state, carving out only certain environmentally sensitive areas and, notably, California’s coastal zone.

The bill had a serious defect, as the League of California Cities pointed out in its request for a veto to Governor Brown. The league’s letter stated that the bill should:

Require the trigger for ministerial approval of housing projects to be based on the number of entitled and approved applications, a process that a local agency actually controls, rather than building permits, which a developer controls and will not pull until they are ready to construct a project.

Although this may seem like a trivial point, it has major consequences. To understand why, two things need to be explained: First, cities do not build housing. Developers build housing. Cities approve project applications but cannot require developers to build the approved projects. Since approvals typically have a long shelf life of one to three years, developers can bank them and be picky about when they convert them to building permits.

Second, the goal of developers is not to build housing. The goal of developers is to make money. Building housing and making money are not the same thing. Developers are portfolio managers. They hold a range of assets including undeveloped land, project approvals, unfinished projects, market-ready completed projects, cash, and other financial assets.

Developers reallocate their assets to maximize the value of their holdings. Developers are loath to dump so much of their product on the market at one time that they drive their prices down against themselves. Developers are also beholden to their lenders and suppliers. If banks don’t want to lend, or if labor and building materials are too expensive, they may have to put their plans on hold until they “pencil out.” According to this article:

The builders do not care anything about the existing home-sales market, and they don’t care about the housing shortage. They’ll always go slow and steady. …People want an oversupplied market, and we just don’t do that in America.

For all these reasons it makes no sense for SB 35 streamlining to be triggered by developers failing to pull building permits. But in the aftermath of SB 35 becoming law, this is the reality cities face.

Typically a city is not evaluated until the mid-point of the RHNA cycle, when the city reports to HCD the number of building permits issued since the start of the RHNA cycle. At that point, a city is required to have issued at least 50 percent of its share of the RHNA goal for building permits in the region. This determination is made separately for above-moderate (market-rate) housing units and lower-income (combining the low- and very-low-income levels) housing units.

If there is an insufficient number of building permits in either income category, for the rest of the RHNA cycle the city must issue building permits ministerially, or by right, for projects in that income category. The city can only require the developer to meet “objective standards,” those that involve “no personal or subjective judgment by a public official.” If these standards are met, then the building permit is issued without any public meetings or any other review.

It would be almost impossible to write a set of objective standards that would cover every contingency. As an experienced land-use attorney told me, due to a lack of review by planning boards and the public, SB 35 can lead to “unpleasant surprises.” More housing units mean more residents, and more unpredictable demands placed on public resources. The loss of local authority will make planning for utilities, roads, schools, parks, and public safety more difficult.

Cities are often blamed for dragging their feet and creating bottlenecks by issuing approvals too slowly, but the data show otherwise. In their report “New Development in California 2018,” the Construction Industry Research Board stated:

Considering only the projects that are under construction or approved awaiting building permits, there are currently 451,000 new homes and 308 million square feet of non-residential space that will likely be built over the next five years.

Under SB 35, whether cities approve enough housing to meet the RHNA targets makes no difference. And even if developers and trade unions agree they couldn’t possibly build that much new housing, it doesn’t matter. If building permits are not pulled, cities are blamed. The passage of SB 35 left cities vulnerable to schemes that set up cities to fail. All that was needed was a bill that politicized the RHNA process and inflated the numbers. That bill was SB 828.

The Bay Area Council is the leadership organization of the Bay Area’s corporate elites. It lies in the middle of an ecosystem of other pro-development organizations including the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and SPUR. Among legislators in Sacramento, Senator Wiener, who is notorious for his ties to big real estate (see here and here), is their main ally.

The council usually tries to wield its influence from the shadows, but regarding SB 828, the council openly bragged about its success. In the council’s Jan. 29, 2021, Weekly Flash online newsletter, in an article titled (appropriately enough), “Playing the Housing Numbers Game,” The council made this statement:

In the fall of 2017 the Bay Area Council’s housing team met with state Senator Scott Wiener to discuss the ongoing housing crisis, its root causes and what needed to be done to fix things…Out of that meeting came SB 828 (Wiener), a law that makes the calculation process more scientific and accurate. Lo and behold, this year the Bay Area’s RHNA allocation jumped from 188,000 units to 441,000 units.

The Bay Area Council is not interested in making the RHNA calculations more scientific and accurate. The council’s task is to see that its corporate members make more money. Wiener helped them do that by inflating the target number of housing units in the new RHNA process and by changing the wording of the relevant government code to emphasize production.

As with SB 35, the League of California Cities unsuccessfully urged Governor Brown to veto SB 828, and for much the same reason — cities plan and zone for housing, but they do not build housing, and RHNA was created to be a planning tool, not a production tool.

The inflated housing goals in SB 828 set cities up to fail. This was no surprise to Senator Wiener or other senators when they first heard the bill in the Senate Housing and Transportation Committee on May 24, 2018. A speaker from the California Chapter of the American Planning Association expressed this concern, which you can see in the video recording. Go to this link, select the April 24, 2018 hearing, and hit “watch.” At 1:30:00 in the video the presentation on SB 828 starts. The opposition speaker from the planning association starts at 1:43:45 and at 1:45:45 states that SB 828 “sets us up for failure.” The American Planning Association continued to oppose this bill throughout the committee amendment process.

SB 828 empowered HCD to set significantly higher RHNA targets for cities, sometimes more than doubling or tripling the goals from the previous fifth-cycle RHNA. The sixth-cycle target for the state is 2.5 million housing units. That number is almost double that of HCD’s fifth-cycle target of 1.2 million housing units, although the state’s population only grew between two to three percent during the fifth cycle. The City of Berkeley’s goal, for example, has more than tripled, from 2,959 total housing units in the fifth RHNA cycle to 8,934 in the sixth cycle.

To comply with these new targets, in their housing elements cities must first “upzone,” or rezone for higher densities by raising height limits to allow apartment buildings to become taller, and in some cases reducing setbacks from property lines to allow buildings to become wider and deeper. This allows apartments to contain more units.

In an urban residential neighborhood, there might be a height limit of 28 feet, with setbacks of eight feet from the property boundaries. These constraints determine the size of a large imaginary box inside which you are allowed to build a house. In areas that allow apartments, there are much larger boxes of developable space inside which developers can build. The allowable size of this box is a feature of the property, at least until another rezoning, and helps determine the value of the property.

With upzoning, the developable box gets taller (as height limits are relaxed), and sometimes wider and longer (if setbacks are relaxed). The larger developable box makes the property more valuable — without any effort from the property owner. It’s a windfall increase in property values, especially for undeveloped commercial properties. According to land-use economist Cameron Murray, connected landowners capture the benefits of land rezoning:

Land rezoning involves two distinct decisions: the choice to rezone more land for higher-density development, and the choice of the precise area to be rezoned. Political pressure to expand higher value zoning areas is usually argued to come from owners of undeveloped land who may directly benefit, in concert with a wide range of secondary beneficiaries such as banks and construction companies, in a type of ‘growth coalition.’ The secondary decision, where exactly to rezone, involves the allocation of property rights from the community to the owners of the land within the rezoning boundary at the moment of rezoning.

But there’s another bonus for developers. If developers don’t pull enough building permits early in the RHNA cycle, the city and its residents are penalized by being forced to accept streamlined ministerial approval processes. This is true even if cities issue a generous number of approvals early in the RHNA cycle.

Note that this creates perverse incentives for developers to delay construction (perhaps an unintended consequence of SB 828). On the other hand, if cities fail to comply with RHNA rules, there are painful consequences. The combination of SB 35 and SB 828 has led to what cities call “carrots for developers and sticks for cities.”

Part Two: Housing and Community Development’s role

SB 828 went through many versions as it passed through committees in the state Senate and Assembly, but it was never a popular bill. In the concurrence process for the bill, when the senate approved the assembly amendments, SB 828 passed with 22 yes votes, only one more than necessary. According to the rules of the state Legislature, a bill must have a majority of the voting body to pass. Since there are 40 senators, passage requires 21 votes.

Page three of the 8/30/18 Senate Floor Analyses on SB 828 lists these three items that had been refined during the lengthy amendment process:

1) Revises the data COGs must provide to HCD as follows:

a) Adds, to the existing requirement to provide overcrowding rates, the overcrowding rate for a comparable housing market, as defined.

b) Adds, to the existing requirement to provide vacancy rates for the existing housing stock and for a healthy housing market, a definition of a healthy housing market vacancy rate as no less than 5%.

c) Adds a requirement to provide data on the percentage of cost-burdened households and the rate of housing cost burden for a healthy housing market, as specified.

These three requirements were written vaguely enough to leave a wide latitude for their interpretation. HCD implemented these directives in a way to produce absurdly high sixth-cycle RHNA numbers. The lack of transparency was disappointing.

The new requirements of SB 828 were implemented in a way that conflicted with the existing methodology. Before the sixth cycle, the California Department of Finance (DOF) Demographics Unit first projected the state population by county for several years, including the final years of the RHNA cycle. DOF demographers then disaggregated the projected population for each RHNA region into various age cohorts.

Next the demographers applied a housing formation rate (also called the headship rate) to each of the different age cohorts. The housing formation rate is just the percentage of the population in each age cohort that are heads of households. Typically this percentage is low in the younger cohorts, grows for the older cohorts, and begins to decline for the elderly cohorts.

DOF is aware that household formation rates vary over the business cycle. When the economy is strong, children move out of their parents’ houses, and young people tend to have fewer roommates. These changes make the household formation rates grow. When the economy weakens, children move back home, and young people take on more roommates. This makes the household formation rates shrink.

The demographers worried that their household projections would be too low if they were based on current household formation rates. This is due to the continued suppression of household formation caused by the lingering effects of the 2008 Great Recession. So instead of using current rates, they switched to the higher historical formation rates from the decades before the Great Recession. This raised the DOF estimates of the number of households that the RHNA process would need to accommodate.

DOF demographers searched for what economists call a counterfactual model by looking across time for different benchmarks that would allow them to accurately project future household growth. This is a standard professional demographic technique.

HCD’s implementation of SB 828, beginning with the sixth RHNA cycle, introduced a completely different methodology, one that was both incompatible and redundant with the DOF projections. While DOF looked across time for counterfactual benchmarks, HCD looked across space for different benchmarks that explained what household growth should be.

When compared to some other US regions, California has a higher percentage of both overcrowded households and cost-burdened households (households that pay too large a share of their income for rent). HCD attempted to estimate how many more housing units California would need to bring down the rates of overcrowding and cost burden to those of other U.S. regions.

DOF and HCD’s methods both addressed overcrowding, but in different ways. Overcrowding occurs when there are too many people per household. This often happens when low-income families can only afford to share a small housing unit with friends or relatives. In their projections, DOF raised the household formation rate to increase the number of households, which in turn drove down the number of persons per household, decreasing overcrowding. On the other hand, HCD calculated a percentage adjustment rate based on comparisons to other US regions and applied this percentage to increase their number of projected households, which also drove down overcrowding.

Here’s what went wrong: HCD took DOF’s adjusted household projections and applied their simple percentage adjustment to them. But DOF’s projections had already been adjusted upwards. HCD’s final results adjusted the household projections upwards twice. This created a large amount of double-counting and exaggerated the sixth-cycle RHNA estimates of the need for more housing. Critics quickly pointed out this problem and many others, as the next section describes.

The problems with the sixth-cycle numbers were noted by three different organizations:

1) In September 2019, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), the state’s largest Council of Government,  filed a formal objection to the sixth-cycle RHNA allocations from HCD. When compared to the fifth cycle, the new sixth-cycle goals more than tripled the number of housing units required in the six-county Southern California region from 412,137 to 1,341,827. The SCAG objections worked within the framework provided by HCD but did a thoughtful, professional job to correct the problems with HCD’s approach. The agency’s response was to ignore the suggestions in a cynical and self-serving letter.

Having seen how little success their Southern California colleagues had achieved, the Association of Bay Area Governments executive board decided not to file an objection to the Bay Area numbers from HCD. Only one member of the ABAG leadership, Novato Mayor Pat Eklund, voted against accepting the figure of 441,176 housing units in the nine-county Bay Area, which more than doubled the fifth-cycle targets.

But there may be another reason for ABAG’s lack of will — it no longer exists as a separate entity. The name ABAG is still used in some planning circles, but it is a polite fiction. ABAG was absorbed in a hostile takeover by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (here and here). ABAG/MTC, as it is often called, is now a subsidiary of the commission, which itself was formed at the behest of the Bay Area Council, the organization that sponsored SB 828.

2) In September 2020, the private non-profit Embarcadero Institute produced a report, “Double Counting in the Latest Housing Needs Assessment.” This report covered the RHNA allocations to all four major regions in California — Southern California (six counties), the Bay Area (nine counties), the Sacramento region (six counties), and San Diego County. Along with the formal complaint by the Southern California Association of Governments, the report uncovered problems with HCD’s analysis of overcrowding and cost burden.

3) In September 2021, state Senator Steven Glazer requested an emergency audit of the RHNA process. In response to Glazer’s request, in March 2022 Michael S. Tilden, the Acting California State Auditor, issued a blistering critique of RHNA:

Overall, our audit determined that HCD does not ensure that its needs assessments are accurate and adequately supported. …This insufficient oversight and lack of support for its considerations risks eroding public confidence that HCD is informing local governments of the appropriate amount of housing they will need.

Although HCD claimed to have addressed the report’s concerns, it provided few details. Unfortunately, the state auditor has no enforcement authority. Since HCD is a sub-agency of the cabinet-level California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, it would be up to Governor Newsom’s office to insist that HCD act more consistently. So far, the Governor has shown little interest in doing so.

Back in the fall of 2017, when Wiener planned with the Bay Area Council to inflate the RHNA targets, it appears they were a little too successful. As discussed in detail in Part Three below, it is physically impossible to achieve the overall RHNA targets. It is financially impossible to achieve affordable housing targets. Even the market-rate (above-moderate) targets will be extremely difficult. Developers will not oversupply and flood the state with market-rate housing to the point they drive down their profits.

Part of the problem may be that Wiener and his staff did not meet with the Department of Finance demographers to understand their methodology, which underpinned the household forecasts used in the RHNA process. This would explain the double counting detected by the Embarcadero Institute. I had an opportunity to ask Senator Wiener about this, and his non-response left me with the impression that his staff did not meet with the demographers or understand their methodology. But judge for yourselves. Here is a video interview with Senator Wiener. My question begins at 57:25.

However the goals were reached, the post-SB 828 RHNA targets are exaggerated to the point of absurdity. Cities and counties are being set up to fail. Yet along with HCD, hundreds of cities and counties across the state will spend more than a billion dollars in staff time and consultant fees to pursue a housing element fantasy.

Part Three: HCD’s 2022 statewide housing plan

In March 2022 HCD published the 2022 Statewide Housing Plan (online here, download here). The Housing Plan brought together the RHNA housing goals for all 539 jurisdictions in California — 482 cities and 58 counties (San Francisco is both a county and a city). Between the fifth (2014–2022) and sixth RHNA cycles (2022–2030), the population of California grew by just a few percentage points, while the RHNA targets more than doubled. This is due to the redundant ad hoc adjustments required by SB 828.

“The sixth-cycle RHNA goal for low- and very low-income households is slightly more than one million housing units. At a subsidy cost of $750,000 per housing unit, the RHNA targets would require $750 billion in subsidies. Inclusionary zoning could lower the cost per unit, while building in the coastal zone could raise the cost to $1 million per housing unit (this was confirmed by Terner Center Policy Director David Garcia at the December 2023 California Coastal Commission meeting in Santa Cruz, available online here, starting at 42:30).”

Inclusionary zoning could lower the cost per unit, while building in the coastal zone could raise the cost to $1 million per housing unit (this was confirmed by Terner Center Policy Director David Garcia at the December 2023 California Coastal Commission meeting in Santa Cruz, available online here, starting at 42:30).

The main source of funding for deed-restricted affordable housing is the Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program (LIHTC). This program allocates to the states “the equivalent of approximately $9 billion in annual budget authority to issue tax credits.” Even if California could spend the whole annual federal allocation for eight years in a row, that would amount to $72 billion, or about one-tenth of the amount needed to meet the RHNA affordable housing target. Other sources are available (see here and p. 7 here), but even under the most optimistic assumptions, the RHNA affordable housing targets are wildly unrealistic.

The sixth-cycle RHNA goals also call for 2.5 million housing units to be constructed in eight years, more than 300,000 housing units annually. The graph above shows the annual number of housing units permitted in California since 1980. The horizontal line near the top of the graph (Units Needed) indicates the annual number of housing units required to meet the sixth-cycle RHNA target of 2.5 million units (312,500 units annually). In only one year since 1980, in 1986, did the state produce more than 300,000 housing units. An earlier HCD report (here, p.6) extends this data back to 1954. That report shows that in only two years out of the last 70 did the state produce more than 300,000 housing units — in 1963 and in 1986.

After the Great Recession of 2008, which hit California particularly hard, the state’s housing market collapsed, and along with it the residential building industry and its workforce. California now produces slightly more than 100,000 housing units annually. It is not possible to quickly triple production and hold it at that level for eight years. Building more than 300,000 housing units annually for eight years has never occurred in California, and it’s extremely unlikely it could be achieved in the sixth RHNA cycle. Post-Covid, the national construction industry labor shortage has been severe.

The constraints on housing production in California have also been noted by William Fulton, the publisher of California Planning and Development Review. In a January 7, 2024, article, “Does California have Limited Housing Development Capacity?” Fulton states:

After the Great Recession, the overall capacity of the planning and development system shrunk significantly and, apparently, permanently. There are fewer developers, financiers, and planners in California than there were 15 years ago. …The overall planning workforce in the public sector — somewhat dependent on the fees generated by development applications — permanently declined. It’s entirely possible that the development system is producing as much housing as it’s possible to produce with the capacity it has.

The Governor’s Office, HCD and the Legislature all seem to see California’s housing production system as a black box model with a linear response — to double the output, just double the inputs. Thus if HCD tells all 539 cities and counties in the state to plan for twice as many housing units, the result magically will be, eight years later, twice as many apartments, condos and single-family houses. But sadly, the world doesn’t work this way.

Housing development is a monopolized industry, like many others in the United States. Monopolists face downward-sloping demand curves. They do not keep building to the point where they drive down pricesagainst themselves. It is the developers who constrict supply as demand changes. Constricted supply is baked into monopoly capitalism.

A review of the fifth-cycle RHNA results makes this more clear. Although the fifth-cycle targets were about half the size of the sixth cycle’s, out of a total of 539 jurisdictions, 251 (46.6 percent) failed to meet both the above-moderate and lower-income targets. Another 246 jurisdictions (45.6 percent) met their above-moderate income targets but failed to meet their lower-income targets. Only 42 jurisdictions (7.8 percent) met both the lower-income and above-moderate income targets.

When developers fail to produce enough housing to meet HCD’s inflated sixth-cycle targets, it will not be the fault of local jurisdictions. After approximately 150 housing bills since 2017, most local control has been eliminated by the state Legislature. Thus it will be less and less credible for legislators to continue to blame cities as new housing units fail to arrive. This fiasco will come to an ugly conclusion when HCD’s sixth-cycle targets are met almost nowhere in the state. Then it will become clear that Sacramento never had a coherent plan to build housing.

Part Four: New developments for the Coastal Zone

William Fulton, in the California Policy and Development Review, notes:

SB 35 requires ministerial approval for certain projects containing affordable housing in cities that are not meeting their housing targets under the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, which these days is practically all cities. …This year, as has been widely publicized, SB 35 was extended and expanded by SB 423, which passed after a brutal battle over whether it should be applied in the coastal zone – a battle Wiener won.

SB 35 has a sunset date in 2026, so Senator Wiener got an early start in replacing his original bill with a new version, SB 423. Compared to its predecessor, SB 423 had more lenient labor standards and further restricted the review of developers’ building applications for conformance with objective standards. Under the new bill, the review must be handled at the staff level—no oversight by planning commissions or city councils will be allowed. As proposed, SB 423 had no sunset date, and unlike its predecessor SB 35, the new bill would apply to the coastal zone.

As the bill worked its way through the committee process, first in the Senate and then in the Assembly, a sunset date of 2036 was added, the labor rules were tweaked, and then on July 10, 2023, the bill landed in the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Assembly-member Luz Rivas. The committee hearing was unusually contentious. The relevant portion of the meeting can be viewed here, starting at 1:12:00.

Chair Rivas was opposed to allowing the bill out of her committee unless its streamlining provisions would not apply in the coastal zone, as had been the case in SB 35. Her stance was supported by three committee members, all from coastal districts: Dawn Addis (AD 30, Morro Bay), Al Muratsuchi (AD 66, Torrance) and Gail Pellerin (AD 28, Santa Cruz). Their comments begin at 2:19:00.

Earlier in the legislative session Rivas and her allies on the Natural Resources Committee had been able to modify AB 1287, a bill carried by Assemblymember David Alvarez (AD 80, San Diego) that would have exempted density bonus projects from the Coastal Act. In committee, Rivas and a majority of the committee members were able to restore the Coastal Act Savings Clause, which states that density bonus law shall not be “construed to supersede or in any way alter or lessen the effect or application of the California Coastal Act of 1976.” This assured that the bill’s enhanced density bonus benefits would continue to be harmonized with a jurisdiction’s local coastal plan.

However, the committee was not as successful with SB 423, and the version of the bill that passed largely superseded the Coastal Act. Seven committee members voted in favor of SB 423, while four effectively voted no with abstentions. Assemblymember Rivas was later removed as chair of the Natural Resources Committee.

SB 423 opens a Pandora’s Box. For the first time since the creation of the California Coastal Act 50 years ago, a whole class of development, multifamily projects, will be exempt from our state’s landmark coastal management legislation. In the long run, the particulars of the bill may not matter. Wiener and his allies have created a precedent and will continue to build upon it to disregard the will of the voters expressed in the 1972 initiative that led to the creation of the Coastal Act.

SB 423 is, at its core, a device for extending the carefully manipulated RHNA process into the coastal zone. RHNA is a ticking time bomb. Four years into the eight-year cycle of each region, if developers haven’t pulled permits for at least half of the jurisdiction’s RHNA allocation, the approval process becomes ministerial. This deregulation by default effectively nullifies the application of the Coastal Act. In addition, the interaction of ministerial approvals and the concessions required by density bonus law will prevent cities from enforcing even their limited objective standards.

Given the absurdity of the RHNA goals, ministerial approvals will go into effect in almost all California cities and counties. The table below shows the dates when the RHNA ministerial approval processes will begin in all 15 counties in the coastal zone.

Final thoughts

SB 423 is, at its core, a device for extending the carefully manipulated RHNA process into the coastal zone. RHNA is a ticking time bomb. Four years into the eight-year cycle of each region, if developers haven’t pulled permits for at least half of the jurisdiction’s RHNA allocation, the approval process becomes ministerial. This deregulation by default effectively nullifies the application of the Coastal Act. In addition, the interaction of ministerial approvals and the concessions required by density bonus law will prevent cities from enforcing even their limited objective standards. Given the absurdity of the RHNA goals, ministerial approvals will go into effect in almost all California cities and counties.

The May 15, 2023, edition of CalMatters featured an article titled, “California is losing population and building new houses. When will home prices come down?” In the article, reporter Ben Christopher noted, “There are now more homes per person — 3,770 units for every 10,000 Californians — than there have been since at least 1991.

Sacramento has been telling California residents that we are in the midst of a “housing crisis.” Yet, on average, overcrowding has been reduced in California since 1991. The real problem is not the amount of housing, but the mismatch between income and rents. We are in an affordability crisis due to growing income and wealth inequality.

This is not just a problem for California. According to census definitions, about 50 percent of US renters are considered housing cost-burdened because they pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing. In California, about 55 percent of renters are housing cost-burdened — higher than the U.S. average, but not by much. Housing costs are a national and even an international problem.

California’s housing affordability crisis will not be solved by building more market-rate housing in the coastal zone. Like the rest of the state, lower-income households in the coastal zone need affordable housing, at least in regions where the zone extends more than a few hundred yards inland. But the constraint is not lack of land zoned for apartments and condos, it is lack of subsidies and meaningful inclusionary mandates.

Senate Bill 423 will be just the first of many bills that seek to undermine the integrity of the Coastal Act and destroy its ability to preserve the coastal zone. The result will be a Tragedy of the Commons. The Coastal Act has preserved the California coast for the common benefit of all our state’s residents. Unfettered coastal development will destroy the natural beauty of California’s coast. Wiener may argue that his bills are only modest adjustments of the commission’s authority, but as we have seen with state housing policy, the cumulative impact of dozens of bills will not be modest.

Because the Coastal Commission has conserved the coast as well-managed commons, real estate developers can maximize their profits by constructing luxury residential projects in coastal communities. Many of these will become short-term vacation rentals or private vacation homes that are unoccupied much of the year. In the coastal zone increased supply will never bring down housing prices. Housing prices will always be skewed by the endless interest of global investors in California’s coastal real estate.Let me close by repeating to the words I wrote to the State Auditor regarding RHNA:

Your work is critical because the sixth-cycle RHNA is a fraud. I do not know, and perhaps none of us will ever know, how much this is due to malfeasance, and how much to incompetence and miscommunication. But perhaps that doesn’t matter. Regardless of how the problem was caused, the goal should be to prevent the damage that will spring from it.

The Coastal Commission should not overestimate the amount of support and goodwill it has in Sacramento. Many elected officials there would gladly hand over the coastal zone to the real estate industry. After all, the industry is a major source of their campaign funding. Decades of environmental progress could be undone in less than a generation.

It has been more than 50 years since the voters approved the formation of the Coastal Commission in 1972. They created the commission in part because they didn’t trust local leaders and Sacramento politicians to manage the coastal zone wisely. The ability to enjoy our state’s coastline is the right of every resident. Californians saved the coast in 1972, and now, half a century later, we need to rally to preserve the Coastal Act.

Michael Barnes earned a B.A. and M.A. in economics in the 1980s and worked as a budget and economic analyst for the State of Washington in Olympia, WA. He pursued an economics Ph.D. at UC Berkeley before switching careers and joining the UC staff. He retired in 2017 after spending the final 11 years of his career as the science editor for the UC Berkeley College of Chemistry. He served on the Albany City Council from 2012-2020. Between attempting to learn to surf several years ago and more recent and successful cycling tours, he has visited almost every county in California. 

Trump Administration Hardens Its Attack on Climate Science

By Coral Davenport & Mark Landler, The New York Times,  May 27, 2019
The Huntington Canyon coal-fired power plant in Utah. The White House, already pursuing major rollbacks of greenhouse-gas emission restrictions, is amplifying its attack on fundamental climate-science conclusions. Credit: Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Trump has rolled back environmental regulations, pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, brushed aside dire predictions about the effects of climate change, and turned the term “global warming” into a punch line rather than a prognosis.

Now, after two years spent unraveling the policies of his predecessors, Mr. Trump and his political appointees are launching a new assault.

In the next few months, the White House will complete the rollback of the most significant federal effort to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, initiated during the Obama administration. It will expand its efforts to impose Mr. Trump’s hard-line views on other nations, building on his retreat from the Paris accord and his recent refusal to sign a communiqué to protect the rapidly melting Arctic region unless it was stripped of any references to climate change.

And, in what could be Mr. Trump’s most consequential action yet, his administration will seek to undermine the very science on which climate change policy rests.

Mr. Trump is less an ideologue than an armchair naysayer about climate change, according to people who know him. He came into office viewing agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency as bastions of what he calls the “deep state,” and his contempt for their past work on the issue is an animating factor in trying to force them to abandon key aspects of the methodology they use to try to understand the causes and consequences of a dangerously warming planet.

As a result, parts of the federal government will no longer fulfill what scientists say is one of the most urgent jobs of climate science studies: reporting on the future effects of a rapidly warming planet and presenting a picture of what the earth could look like by the end of the century if the global economy continues to emit heat-trapping carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels.

The attack on science is underway throughout the government. In the most recent example, the White House-appointed director of the United States Geological Survey, James Reilly, a former astronaut and petroleum geologist, has ordered that scientific assessments produced by that office use only computer-generated climate models that project the impact of climate change through 2040, rather than through the end of the century, as had been done previously.

President Trump has pushed to resurrect the idea of holding public debates on the validity of climate science. Credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times

Scientists say that would give a misleading picture because the biggest effects of current emissions will be felt after 2040. Models show that the planet will most likely warm at about the same rate through about 2050. From that point until the end of the century, however, the rate of warming differs significantly with an increase or decrease in carbon emissions.

The administration’s prime target has been the National Climate Assessment, produced by an interagency task force roughly every four years since 2000. Government scientists used computer-generated models in their most recent report to project that if fossil fuel emissions continue unchecked, the earth’s atmosphere could warm by as much as eight degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. That would lead to drastically higher sea levels, more devastating storms and droughts, crop failures, food losses and severe health consequences.

Work on the next report, which is expected to be released in 2021 or 2022, has already begun. But from now on, officials said, such worst-case scenario projections will not automatically be included in the National Climate Assessment or in some other scientific reports produced by the government.

“What we have here is a pretty blatant attempt to politicize the science — to push the science in a direction that’s consistent with their politics,” said Philip B. Duffy, the president of the Woods Hole Research Center, who served on a National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed the government’s most recent National Climate Assessment. “It reminds me of the Soviet Union.”

In an email, James Hewitt, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, defended the proposed changes.

“The previous use of inaccurate modeling that focuses on worst-case emissions scenarios, that does not reflect real-world conditions, needs to be thoroughly re-examined and tested if such information is going to serve as the scientific foundation of nationwide decision-making now and in the future,” Mr. Hewitt said.

However, the goal of political appointees in the Trump administration is not just to change the climate assessment’s methodology, which has broad scientific consensus, but also to question its conclusions by creating a new climate review panel. That effort is led by a 79-year-old physicist who had a respected career at Princeton but has become better known in recent years for attacking the science of man-made climate change and for defending the virtues of carbon dioxide — sometimes to an awkward degree.

The Beaufort Sea in the Arctic, a region that is warming rapidly. The United States recently declined to sign a communiqué on protecting the Arctic unless it omitted references to climate change. Credit: Andrew Testa for The New York Times

“The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler,” the physicist, William Happer, who serves on the National Security Council as the president’s deputy assistant for emerging technologies, said in 2014 in an interview with CNBC.

Mr. Happer’s proposed panel is backed by John R. Bolton, the president’s national security adviser, who brought Mr. Happer into the N.S.C. after an earlier effort to recruit him during the transition.

Mr. Happer and Mr. Bolton are both beneficiaries of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, the far-right billionaire and his daughter who have funded efforts to debunk climate science. The Mercers gave money to a super PAC affiliated with Mr. Bolton before he entered government and to an advocacy group headed by Mr. Happer.

Climate scientists are dismissive of Mr. Happer; his former colleagues at Princeton are chagrined. And several White House officials — including Larry Kudlow, the president’s chief economic adviser — have urged Mr. Trump not to adopt Mr. Happer’s proposal, on the grounds that it would be perceived as a White House attack on science.

Even Stephen K. Bannon, the former White House strategist who views Mr. Happer as “the climate hustler’s worst nightmare — a world-class physicist from the nation’s leading institution of advanced learning, who does not suffer fools gladly,” is apprehensive about what Mr. Happer is trying to do.

“The very idea will start a holy war on cable before 2020,” he said. “Better to win now and introduce the study in the second inaugural address.”

But at a White House meeting on May 1, at which the skeptical advisers made their case, Mr. Trump appeared unpersuaded, people familiar with the meeting said. Mr. Happer, they said, is optimistic that the panel will go forward.

William Happer, who serves on the National Security Council, is pushing to create a climate review panel that would question scientific consensus. Credit: Pool photo by Albin Lohr-Jones

The concept is not new. Mr. Trump has pushed to resurrect the idea of a series of military-style exercises, known as “red team, blue team” debates, on the validity of climate science first promoted by Scott Pruitt, the E.P.A. administrator who was forced to resign last year amid multiple scandals.

At the time, the idea was shot down by John F. Kelly, then the White House chief of staff. But since Mr. Kelly’s departure, Mr. Trump has talked about using Mr. Happer’s proposed panel as a forum for it.

For Mr. Trump, climate change is often the subject of mockery. “Wouldn’t be bad to have a little of that good old fashioned Global Warming right now!” he posted on Twitter in January when a snowstorm was freezing much of the country.

His views are influenced mainly by friends and donors like Carl Icahn, the New York investor who owns oil refineries, and the oil-and-gas billionaire Harold Hamm — both of whom pushed Mr. Trump to deregulate the energy industry.

Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka made a well-publicized effort to talk him out of leaving the Paris accord in 2017. But after being vanquished by officials including Mr. Bannon, Mr. Pruitt, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the former White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II, there is little evidence she has resisted his approach since then.

The president’s advisers amplify his disregard. At the meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismayed fellow diplomats by describing the rapidly warming region as a land of “opportunity and abundance” because of its untapped reserves of oil, gas, uranium, gold, fish and rare-earth minerals. The melting sea ice, he said, was opening up new shipping routes.

“That is one of the most crude messages one could deliver,” said R. Nicholas Burns, who served as the NATO ambassador under George W. Bush.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismayed fellow diplomats by describing the Arctic as a land of “opportunity and abundance” as a consequence of global warming. Credit: Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At the National Security Council, under Mr. Bolton, officials said they had been instructed to strip references to global warming from speeches and other formal statements. But such political edicts pale in significance to the changes in the methodology of scientific reports.

Mr. Reilly, the head of the Geological Survey, who does not have a background in climate change science, characterized the changes as an attempt to prepare more careful, accurate reports. “We’re looking for answers with our partners and to get statistical significance from what we understand,” he said.

Yet scientists said that by eliminating the projected effects of increased carbon dioxide pollution after 2040, the Geological Survey reports would present an incomplete and falsely optimistic picture of the impact of continuing to burn unlimited amounts of coal, oil and gasoline.

“The scenarios in these reports that show different outcomes are like going to the doctor, who tells you, ‘If you don’t change your bad eating habits, and you don’t start to exercise, you’ll need a quadruple bypass, but if you do change your lifestyle, you’ll have a different outcome,’” said Katharine Hayhoe, the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and an author of the National Climate Assessment.

Not all government science agencies are planning such changes. A spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, asked if its scientists would limit the use of climate models, wrote in an email, “No changes are being considered at this time.”

The push to alter the results of at least some climate science reports, several officials said, came after November’s release of the second volume of the National Climate Assessment.

While the Trump administration did not try to rewrite the scientific conclusions of the report, officials sought to play it down — releasing it the day after Thanksgiving — and discredit it, with a White House statement calling it “largely based on the most extreme scenario.”

This summer, the E.P.A. is expected to finalize the legal rollback of two of President Barack Obama’s most consequential policies: regulations to curb planet-warming pollution from vehicles and power plants. Credit: George Etheredge for The New York Times

Still, the report could create legal problems for Mr. Trump’s agenda of abolishing regulations. This summer, the E.P.A. is expected to finalize the legal rollback of two of President Barack Obama’s most consequential policies: federal regulations to curb planet-warming pollution from vehicle tailpipes and power plant smokestacks.

Opponents say that when they challenge the moves in court, they intend to point to the climate assessment, asking how the government can justify the reversals when its own agencies have concluded that the pollution will be so harmful.

That is why officials are now discussing how to influence the conclusions of the next National Climate Assessment.

“They’ve started talking about how they can produce a report that doesn’t lead to some silly alarmist predictions about the future,” said Myron Ebell, who heads the energy program at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry-funded research organization, and who led the administration’s transition at the E.P.A.

A key change, he said, would be to emphasize historic temperatures rather than models of future atmospheric temperatures, and to eliminate the “worst-case scenarios” of the effect of increased carbon dioxide pollution — sometimes referred to as “business as usual” scenarios because they imply no efforts to curb emissions.

Scientists said that eliminating the worst-case scenario would give a falsely optimistic picture. “Nobody in the world does climate science like that,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton. “It would be like designing cars without seatbelts or airbags.”

Outside the United States, climate scientists had long given up on the White House being anything but on outlier in policy. But they worry about the loss of the government as a source for reliable climate research.

“It is very unfortunate and potentially even quite damaging that the Trump administration behaves this way,” said Johan Rockström, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “There is this arrogance and disrespect for scientific advancement — this very demoralizing lack of respect for your own experts and agencies.”

A version of this article appears in print on May 27, 2019, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: In Climate Fight, Trump Will Put Science on Trial.

Pruitt resigns, but replacement Wheeler ‘should scare anyone who breathes’

Repost from The Energy Mix, Full story: POLITICO

Pruitt resigns, but replacement Wheeler ‘should scare anyone who breathes’

July 6, 2018, By Eric Wolff
Andrew Wheeler is pictured. | AP
As the EPA’s No. 2, Andrew Wheeler could immediately fill Scott Pruitt’s shoes as acting administrator, though President Donald Trump could insert someone above him in a temporary capacity. | Alex Edelman/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

U.S. environmental groups declared victory yesterday with the resignation of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, following months of unremitting scandal. But they’re already gearing up for a fight against his replacement, Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a veteran coal lobbyist who Politico describes as “smarter and more plugged in to Washington than Scott Pruitt was”.

“Wheeler is much smarter and will try to keep his efforts under the radar in implementing Trump’s destructive agenda,” said Jeremy Symons, vice president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund. “That should scare anyone who breathes.”

Most of Wheeler’s professional career “has been devoted to resisting attempts to improve the quality of our air and our water and the safety of our communities,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. “He fought against safeguards to limit mercury poisoning. He fought against protections to limit the amount of ozone in our skies. He fought against [controlling] air pollution from neighbouring states. He’s a climate denier. So, sadly, he fits in well with EPA leadership.”

While Wheeler will take over EPA on an acting basis Monday morning, Pruitt’s permanent replacement will have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Some news reports yesterday suggested that may not happen before mid-term elections November 6, when there is at least a passing possibility of Democrats regaining control of the chamber.

Pruitt finally left his post under a cloud as “one of the most scandal-plagued Cabinet officials in U.S. history,” the Los Angeles Times reports, with 19 federal investigations—18 of them still in progress—into his conduct while in office. “The departure of the anti-regulatory crusader Pruitt ends a bizarre and tumultuous chapter of the Trump administration that puzzled even some of the president’s staunchest supporters.”

Trump reportedly held on to Pruitt for as long as he did because the former Oklahoma attorney-general, who previously made a name for himself by avidly suing to block the Obama environmental agenda, was also one of the most effective Cabinet secretaries in implementing Trump’s priorities, including attacks on climate policy, basic science, and clean air and water standards.

In the end, he became an embarrassment to Trump as well as a disgrace to his country.

“The spendthrift EPA chief has been a political liability for the White House for months, drawing the attention of federal investigators with scandal after scandal, many of which were linked to his lavish spending of taxpayer money and the use of his position to enrich his family,” the Times notes. “The transgressions include Pruitt’s deal with the wife of a top energy lobbyist for deeply discounted housing, huge raises he gave friends against the instructions of the White House, and his penchant for flying first class. Pruitt used his office to try to secure his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise and also enlisted aides to try to help her land lucrative work elsewhere. He had a $43,000 phone booth installed in his office.” The only Pruitt investigation completed so far concluded that that phone booth broke federal spending laws.

In the Washington Post, columnist Dana Milbank gets at the paranoia Pruitt brought to an office once devoted to protecting Americans’ air, water, health, and safety. “Pruitt spent the past 16 months turning the Environmental Protection Agency into a paramilitary operation, with the sole purpose of protecting him,” he writes. “Pruitt had spent some $4.6 million on security, enlisting a round-the-clock detail that followed him everywhere, even to Disneyland and Italy, whisking him from his office — where a $43,000 soundproof phone booth cocooned him and a panic alarm connected him directly to the security office—to the $50-a-night room in a condominium that he had rented from a lobbyist.”

Milbank introduces a new unit of measure for the duration of Pruitt’s tenure.

“Pruitt survived—for 503 days from swearing-in to resignation,” he writes. “That’s an eternity in the Trump administration. Anthony Scaramucci set the standard, lasting just 10 days in his job managing White House communications. If we take Scaramucci’s 10-day figure to be the standard of measurement—one ‘mooch’—then Pruitt survived an amazing 50.3 mooches, even while enduring more than a dozen scandals, any one of which would have doomed a lesser man.”

“Scott Pruitt’s corruption and coziness with industry lobbyists finally caught up with him,” said Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica told the Times. “We’re happy that Pruitt can no longer deceive Americans or destroy our environment.”

But much as the U.S. environmental community is taking a victory lap for the campaigns and advocacy that helped push Pruitt out the door, Wheeler will be a different sort of challenge.

“The man taking the reins at the Environmental Protection Agency after Scott Pruitt’s downfall is a longtime Washington insider and coal lobbyist who is set to pursue the same anti-regulation agenda—only without all of Pruitt’s baggage,” Politico notes. A former chief of staff to climate-denying Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and lobbyist for coal baron and avid Trump ally Bob Murray of Murray Energy, “Wheeler is a smooth insider with a penchant for policy details and a reputation for working well with both friends and adversaries. But those who have dealt with him say he’s on board with the broad deregulatory agenda that Pruitt and Trump are pursuing.”

“The problem with the Pruitt approach is it’s like a sugar high,” Democratic lobbyist and former Energy Department staffer Jeff Navin told Politico’s Eric Wolff. “It feels really, really good for a moment, but if you’re not following rules and procedure, not laying down substance for the decision you’re making, you’re not going to last very long.”

“He’s like Mike Pence is to Trump,” another unnamed source told Wolff. “He’s behind the scenes. He’ll get a lot done and doesn’t need to be in the news.”

“The impression he creates is very personable, respectful, good listener,” said one EPA employee. “He’s very interested in being involved in the substantive issues. He’s ready to get involved in our issues.” But there’s little doubt that his job will be to advance the radical deregulation that defined Pruitt’s tenure.

“I think that Andrew is well aware of the president’s agenda, and the parts of the agenda that are the responsibility of the EPA,” said lobbyist and political consultant Andy Ehrlich, a longtime associate of Wheeler’s. “I would expect based on my experience with Andrew to do what he can to see that the president’s agenda at the EPA is fulfilled in a methodical and thoughtful way.”

“Pruitt and Wheeler may have some small differences: The Democratic aide said Wheeler might offer more support to the agency’s research, in contrast to Pruitt,” Politico states. “But people who know Wheeler see him as a ‘true believer’ in rolling back regulations who is comfortable in the weeds of policy.”

And “that’s the worry of environmental groups, which note the years Wheeler spent working with Inhofe, who calls human-caused global warming a ‘hoax,’ and Murray, a fierce opponent of EPA’s climate regulations.”

Meanwhile, “in his short time at the EPA, Pruitt managed to do more to undermine the environmental protection work of its career scientists, analysts, and enforcement officers than any leader of the agency since the early days of the Reagan administration,” the LA Times notes. “Former agency chiefs—including some who served GOP presidents—were shocked by Pruitt’s denial of climate change and his hostility toward many bedrock environmental rules.”

The paper adds that Pruitt “often was unabashedly at war with his own agency, alleging it was under the control of activist bureaucrats working in tandem with environmental groups to impose a radical agenda. His stewardship of the agency reflected a Republican Party that has grown disenchanted with environmental rules and an administration that has little regard for the concerns of voters outside its base.”

On Grist, meanwhile, reporter Zoya Terstein explains why she’ll miss the ethically-challenged administrator—and asks readers to hear her out before they bring their toddlers to Grist HQ. (Her “love letter to Scott Pruitt” also contains a bunch of helpful, one-by-one links to the multiple Pruitt scandals that we consistently under-reported on The Mix, rather than letting it crowd out the more productive news going on in climate and energy.)

“Most of the time, the things that go on in the federal government, however consequential they may be, seem to bore Americans to tears,” Terstein writes.. “(Just look at voter turnout stats for midterm elections.) Whether you liked it or not, Scott Pruitt made the public pay attention. Fancy lotionstactical pantsChick-Fil-A? That’s dramaSecret phone booths? A 24/7 security detail? That’s intrigue. Getting your aides to pay for your hotel rooms? That’s petty. Pruitt was a veritable scandal-factory of his own making, and the wrongdoings were so juicy we literally couldn’t look away! I mean, the dude spent over 1,500 taxpayer dollars on a dozen fountain pens. Pens!

“As time went on, it began to seem like Pruitt didn’t actually care about how many bridges he burned, how many federal investigations were launched, or even whether other members of the GOP were calling for his resignation. But we cared! The scandals were so egregious, so bizarre, so shallow and grasping, that people kept digging and digging to see what else the guy was up to. And each ethical misdeed focused attention on the work he led: dismantling decades of environmental regulations, cutting EPA staffing numbers to below Reagan-era levels, and striking mentions of climate change from the agency’s website.

“People got mad! They marched, wrote letters, signed petitions, and sent the EPA multiple copies of Global Warming for Dummies.

“No wonder the administration rails against ‘fake news.’ Real journalism was able to take down a Trump loyalist.

“Now, someone else wears the tactical pants at the EPA. His name is Andrew Wheeler. He’s been the agency’s deputy administrator since April, and we haven’t heard a peep out of him. Under his leadership, we’re probably in for far less scandal. But you can bet he’ll keep rolling back regulations.”

Study: White House’s top success is in limiting research, environmental protections

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle
[Editor: This analysis confirms my worst impressions of Trump’s first 100 days. Much has been made of the ineffectiveness of his many posturing executive orders.  But he and his cronies are making real inroads against clean air and on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. This is important!  – RS]

Analysis: Trump gains, science loses

By Carolyn Lochhead, April 23, 2017 8:06am
Bayfront Park in Menlo Park, Ca., is home to the South Bay Salt Pond restoration project which is seen at sunrise in on Wed. April 19, 2017. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle
Bayfront Park in Menlo Park, Ca., is home to the South Bay Salt Pond restoration project which is seen at sunrise in on Wed. April 19, 2017. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

WASHINGTON — Nearly 100 days into a presidency remarkably thin on legislative success, one area where the Trump administration and Republican-led Congress have notched indisputable gains is on the environment.

Overshadowed by the implosion on health care and standstill on tax reform, the GOP drive to dismantle, defang and defund environmental laws, rules and science is yielding many of President Trump’s most significant victories to date.

From rolling back rules to fight climate change and air and water pollution to cutting funding for

scientific research, Congress and the administration are undertaking the biggest effort to limit the nation’s basic environmental protections since many were established nearly half a century ago, when Republican Richard Nixon was president.

Using a powerful mix of executive actions, new laws and budget cuts, the efforts exceed anything seen in the Reagan or George W. Bush administrations, two GOP presidencies also skeptical of environmental laws.

Republicans frame the drive not as the war on the environment that critics describe, but as an economic policy to boost growth, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a top GOP economist who heads the pro-market American Action Forum.

“They have a clear agenda on improved economic performance,” Holtz-Eakin said. “I think that’s the No. 1 reason why voters sent Trump to the presidency and carried majorities of Republicans in the House and Senate.”

Whether the GOP succeeds, one of the most striking aspects of the effort is that the scientific community is urging precisely the opposite course.

Climate change and other key measures of environmental degradation are approaching — and crossing — dangerous thresholds, many top scientists warn. Each additional year of continued carbon dioxide emissions creates more damage. Much of it, from Greenland’s melting to mass species extinctions, is irreversible, they say.

The fiscal costs escalate, too, whether it’s the quarter-billion-dollar repair of Oroville Dam after the wettest California winter on record, or the half-billion dollars that Miami is spending to raise its streets above rising seas. Putting environmental efforts on hold for four or eight years of a Trump presidency is unthinkable for many scientists.

“We are in an emergency state for the planet,” said Elizabeth Hadly, a global change biologist at Stanford University. “I really don’t think I can overstate that.”

3 line cap please Traffic moves along highway 880 through downtown Oakland, Ca. on Wed. April 19, 2017. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle
Traffic moves along highway 880 through downtown Oakland, Ca. on Wed. April 19, 2017. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

Katherine Hayhoe, a climate physicist at Texas Tech University and a co-author of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, compared Washington’s approach to climate change to a person with lung cancer continuing to smoke.

“It’s as if … you’ve been to the doctor and you have troubling signs that smoking is beginning to impact your health,” Hayhoe said. “You go home, and instead of stopping smoking as soon as possible as the doctor recommends, you decide that you’re not even going to wean yourself off slowly, like you have been. You’re going to go straight back to every pack that you were smoking before, because you figure, ‘Hey, it’s been working for me for so many years.’”

The problem is not climate change alone. Pervasive pollution, invasive species, habitat loss and mass extinctions have swelled into critical problems within the United States and globally. Each compounds the other, and all are amplified by climate change.

Scientists estimate that global temperatures are on course to become hotter than they’ve been in the past 14 million years, Hadly said. Modern humans evolved roughly 200,000 years ago.

“So not only are the temperatures we’re going toward — in fact where we already are — beyond the temperatures where our human civilizations evolved,” Hadly said, “they’re way beyond the temperatures that humans themselves evolved in.”

The administration and Congress are doing so much, so fast, on so many fronts that the scope of the drive has often escaped wide notice.

The White House was so concerned that its successes were going unheralded that legislative director Mike Short held a news briefing this month to highlight 11 bills Trump had signed, nearly half of which involved environmental protections.

“This is an important story that has not been told,” Short said.

Environmentalists say they’ve never seen anything like it. “I’ve worked in this game since 1977, and more bad stuff has happened in the last few weeks than in my entire career,” said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Unlike health care, environmental issues unite the GOP’s pro-business and small-government wings. When united, Republicans wield extraordinary power through their control of the White House and Capitol Hill.

They tend to view environmental laws as an impediment to business, a drag on the economy, and a wellspring of big government.

“The metastasizing federal bureaucracy is a threat to our people, our Constitution, and our economy,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield said after House passage of four major antiregulatory bills. “Bureaucracies that aren’t accountable to the people, staffed with regulators that never stand for election, write rules that undermine our rights and destroy American jobs.”

To be sure, many Republicans in states that have booming wind and solar industries now embrace renewable energy. Hundreds of U.S. companies such as Walmart and General Mills have committed to using 100 percent renewable energy through the We Mean Business coalition.

But others in the fossil fuel, mining, logging and other extractive industries, or in sectors such as chemicals or real estate development, view environmental rules as a threat.

Trump’s biggest moves in the environmental arena have centered on climate change. Two orders, to roll back limits on power plant emissions and to review vehicle fuel efficiency standards, go after the centerpiece of federal climate policy.

In addition, McCarthy has spearheaded House passage of several anti-regulatory laws that would gut rule making by federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. Most of these await action in the Senate, where Democrats hope to block them.

McCarthy said the new laws will save businesses $10 billion over 20 years.

Budget cuts to government agencies can be nearly as effective as gutting rules, because they can reduce monitoring, enforcement and research.

In a budget plan he sent to Congress last month, Trump proposed slashing domestic programs to fund a $54 billion boost for the military. His biggest cut, 31 percent, would come from the Environmental Protection Agency. He would also terminate four earth science and monitoring programs at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that scientists see as critical to studying the effect humans are having on the climate.

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney called climate programs “a waste of your money.”

Trump also wants to eliminate Sea Grants, a $73 million program that helps coastal states with sea level rise, fisheries and scientific research, among other things. The administration said the program does not contribute to federal “core functions.”

“It’s so short-sighted it’s just ridiculous, but what can you say,” said James Eckman, director of the California Sea Grant program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. “Do we want to have red tides that we can’t control, that we don’t understand, that close beaches, that make seafood unsaleable?”

He noted that three of California’s four major airports — at San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego — are at sea level and already experience flooding.

The runways and taxiways at San Francisco International airport are at risk from the coming sea level rise due to climate change, as seen on Wed. April 19, 2017, in San Francisco, Calif. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle
The runways and taxiways at San Francisco International airport are at risk from the coming sea level rise due to climate change, as seen on Wed. April 19, 2017, in San Francisco, Calif. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

Many of Trump’s proposed cuts face bipartisan resistance in Congress, but they garner support from small-government and pro-military conservatives.

While Congress considers Trump’s budget request, the pace of environmental rollbacks shows no sign of slowing. The EPA last week moved to delay a rule limiting mercury and other toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants, and seeks delays on ozone and methane rules. Administrator Scott Pruitt overruled agency scientists last month in refusing to ban chlorpyrifos, an insecticide applied to more than 50 crops, including almonds, that causes neurological damage.

Pruitt says he wants to take the agency “back to basics,” using “sensible regulations that enhance economic growth.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has ordered an overhaul of public lands planning to shrink a “quagmire” of environmental reviews. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has delayed rules to boost the energy efficiency of portable air conditioners, walk-in coolers and other equipment.

Congress is starting to take aim at the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law that allows the president to declare monuments on public lands. Utah Republicans are keen to reverse former President Barack Obama’s designation of the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument.

Congress has held hearings critical of the Endangered Species Act, a bedrock environmental law that often thwarts development but is the main tool to prevent extinctions.

“We’re still in the infancy of whatever fight it is that we’re going to have on the Endangered Species Act,” said Brett Hartl, head of government affairs for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Scientists are watching all this in horror.

River road near Walnut Grove, Ca. on Wed. April 19, 2017, is also the western back and levee of  the Sacramento River. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle
River road near Walnut Grove, Ca. on Wed. April 19, 2017, is also the western back and levee of the Sacramento River. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

They see different problems. The planet’s ice sheets and glaciers are melting with shocking speed. For the past three years, global temperatures have broken heat records. Sea-level rise threatens major U.S. cities and trillions of dollars in property.

Fisheries have collapsed, and once-common animals such as bats and monarch butterflies are disappearing. Pollutants are everywhere. Millions of dead conifers blanket the West. Droughts imperil the water supply of Phoenix and Las Vegas. Australia’s great coral reefs are dying, and ocean acidification is destroying plankton at the base of the food chain.

“Everything is very, very tightly linked,” said Hadly, the Stanford biologist. Such changes amplify each other, and if unabated, reach tipping points, at which the changes spin out of human control.

“We’re really running a giant experiment, and there’s no reverse gear,” said Gary Griggs, distinguished professor of earth sciences at UC Santa Cruz who has just written an update of the science on sea level rise for the state of California. “There’s no plan B. There’s no other planet to move to. It’s a huge gamble we’re taking.”

Carolyn Lochhead is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent.