California Environmental Quality Act – Background, Goals & Requirements

  • By: Staff Editor
  • Date: August 08, 2010
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The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) was passed by the state of California in 1970 to institute a statewide policy of environmental protection. It acted as a system of checks and balances for land-use development and management decisions in the state. The statute was passed shortly after the federal government passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
CEQA does not directly regulate land use. Rather, it requires state and local agencies within California to follow a protocol of analysis and public disclosure of environmental impacts of proposed projects. The Act requires these agencies to direct projects to adopt feasible measures to mitigate any environmental impact.

Goals of CEQA
CEQA’s basic goal is to develop and maintain a high quality environment within the state of California. The specific goals of CEQA are for California's public agencies to:

  1. Identify the significant environmental effects of their actions; and, either
  2. Avoid those significant environmental effects, where feasible; or
  3. Mitigate those significant environmental effects, where feasible.

Applicability of the Act:

CEQA applies to projects proposed to be undertaken or requiring approval by State and local government agencies.

Definition of “Projects”

Projects are defined in the statute as activities that:

  • Have the potential to physically impact the environment
  • Include the enactment of zoning ordinances
  • Need the issuance of conditional use permits
  • Need the approval of tentative sub-division maps

CEQA applies to all discretionary projects proposed to be conducted or approved by a California public agency, including private projects requiring discretionary government approval. If a project requires approvals from more than one public agency, CEQA requires ones of these public agencies to serve as the lead agency. 

When is a project exempt from CEQA?

General rule exemptions: A project is exempt from CEQA if it does not have a significant impact on the environment.

Statutory exemptions:
These are granted by the State Legislature and the complete list of statutory exemptions can be found in the CEQA Guidelines, Article 18.

Ministerial exemptions: A public official grants this exemption based entirely on only the facts he or she is presented about the project.

Categorical exemptions: These are based on a finding by the Secretary for Resources that the class of projects does not have a significant effect on the environment.  The list of categorical projects can be found in the CEQA Guidelines, Article 19.

What constitutes an environmental review process?

A lead agency has to complete the environmental review process required by CEQA. The lead agency must analyze project impacts to 17 different environmental resource factors detailed in Appendix G during their CEQA review.

The most basic steps of the environmental review process are:

  • Determine if the activity is a project subject to CEQA;
  • Determine if the project is exempt from CEQA;
  • Perform an Initial Study to identify the environmental impacts of the project and determine whether the identified impacts are "significant". Based on its findings of "significance", the lead agency prepares one of the following environmental review documents:
    1. Negative Declaration if it finds no "significant" impacts;
    2. Mitigated Negative Declaration if it finds "significant" impacts but revises the project to avoid or mitigate those significant impacts;
    3. Environmental Impact Report (EIR) if it finds "significant" impacts.

What constitutes “significance”?

According to CEQA, significant effect on the environment means a substantial, or potentially substantial, adverse change in any of the physical conditions within the area affected by the project including land, air, water, minerals, flora, fauna, ambient noise, and objects of historic or aesthetic significance. 

What’s the purpose of an EIR?

The purpose of an EIR is to:

  • Record scope of the applicant’s proposal
  • Analyze all the environmental impact of the proposed project
  • Make public detailed information of these impacts.
  • List ways in which the significant environmental effects may be minimized and indicate alternatives to the project.

Recent amendments to CEQA:

Including greenhouse gas emission analysis:

When CEQA was first enacted, it did not require greenhouse gas emissions to be included in environmental assessments. Studies conducted in subsequent years which linked greenhouse gas emissions to climate change and negative impact on the environment. This led the state to take the following steps:

  • State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 that mandated greenhouse gas emissions be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020.
  • California’s Natural Resources Agency adopted new guidelines on December 31, 2009, requiring lead agencies to analyze greenhouse gas emissions under section 15064.4 during their CEQA reviews. These new guidelines became effective March 2010.

Additional Resources:


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