AB 52: CEQA’s New Perspective on the Environment and Tribal Cultural Resources
By Sarah E. Owsowitz*
Assembly Bill 52, one of the most significant additions to the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA") in recent years, will, undeniably, impose significant new obligations on public agencies.1 While at first blush, AB 52’s large number of new requirements and definitions could appear to add unnecessary new layers to complying with CEQA, a close reading of the statute confirms that, carefully implemented, it can be a mechanism for strengthening CEQA documents by treating cultural resources in a comprehensive manner from the outset of the environmental review process.
Beyond the new obligations, the AB 52-required processes provide real benefits to public agencies. CEQA is a disclosure statute, meant to inform the public and decision-makers about the environmental impacts of a project so that decision-makers can make a considered balancing of a project’s impacts benefits before considering any approvals. One of the most troublesome aspects of CEQA for public agencies is preparing a document, confident in its adequacy, only to learn, after publication of a draft environmental report or a draft negative declaration, and often after the expenditure of considerable time and resources, that there may be an important piece of information or subject missing from the document. But now, through the AB 52 consultation process, the public agency would learn at the beginning of the CEQA process, rather than close to the end, whether there might be significant Tribal issues that could be addressed via mitigation, project design modification and/or outreach.