A Guide to the California Environmental Quality Act Requirements, Process, and Compliance

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is a far-reaching environmental law that can significantly shape the course of development projects throughout the state. This guide provides a comprehensive overview of CEQA, focusing on the key aspects that developers and environmental consultants must understand to navigate the complex regulatory landscape successfully. Readers will learn about the types of projects subject to CEQA, the environmental review process, and the critical role of Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) in assessing and mitigating potential environmental impacts. The guide also explores recent developments in CEQA, such as the shift to using vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as a metric for transportation impacts, and provides insights into the Act's compliance obligations, enforcement mechanisms, and potential penalties for violations. By the end of this guide, readers will be better equipped to manage the CEQA process, avoid common pitfalls, and contribute to the development of projects that promote environmental sustainability and regulatory compliance.


Key Details of the California Environmental Quality Act

Issuing Agency: California Natural Resources Agency

Year Established: 1970

Last Amended: 2018

Statutory Authority: The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)

Primary Legal Reference: California Public Resources Code, Division 13, Environmental Quality, Sections 21000-21189

Overview of the California Environmental Quality Act

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is a state law that requires state and local agencies to identify and mitigate significant environmental impacts of their actions, including approval of development projects and adoption of land use plans.1 CEQA operates within the broader framework of California's environmental laws, which aim to protect the state's natural resources and public health. It is often considered the state-level equivalent of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which applies to federal actions.

CEQA's primary goal is to inform decision-makers and the public about potential environmental effects of proposed activities and to prevent significant, avoidable environmental damage where feasible.2 The law is administered by the California Natural Resources Agency and enforced by the California Attorney General's Office.3

Enacted in 1970, CEQA has undergone several amendments to streamline the environmental review process and to address specific issues such as greenhouse gas emissions and tribal cultural resources.4 The law requires state and local agencies to prepare environmental impact reports (EIRs) for projects that may have significant environmental effects, and to consider feasible alternatives and mitigation measures to reduce those effects.5

CEQA applies to most public agency decisions to carry out, authorize, or approve projects that could have adverse environmental impacts, including private projects that require discretionary government approval.6 However, the law provides several categorical and statutory exemptions for certain types of projects, such as ministerial projects and projects addressing emergencies.7

What does the California Environmental Quality Act protect?

The California Environmental Quality Act protects a wide range of environmental resources from significant adverse impacts caused by public agency decisions and private projects subject to agency approval. These resources include:8

  • Air quality
  • Water quality and supply
  • Biological resources, including wildlife and their habitats
  • Cultural and historical resources
  • Geological resources and soils
  • Mineral resources
  • Noise
  • Public services and utilities
  • Transportation and traffic
  • Visual and aesthetic resources
  • Greenhouse gas emissions and energy

CEQA achieves this protection by requiring state and local agencies to analyze and publicly disclose the potential environmental impacts of their actions, consider alternatives and mitigation measures to reduce significant impacts, and justify their decisions based on the environmental review and public input.9 This process helps ensure that environmental considerations are factored into agency decision-making and that the public is informed and engaged in the process.10


Regulated Activities & Entities

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is a comprehensive environmental law that requires state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of their actions and to avoid or mitigate those impacts, if feasible11. CEQA applies to a wide range of activities and entities, including:

  • Public agencies at all levels of state government, including local agencies, regional agencies, and state agencies12
  • Private entities whose projects require discretionary approval from a government agency13
  • Projects that have the potential to cause a direct or reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment14

Under CEQA, the following types of activities are typically subject to environmental review:

  1. Construction projects, such as buildings, infrastructure, and public facilities
  2. Land use planning and zoning decisions
  3. Adoption and amendment of local General Plans
  4. Issuance of permits and other approvals for private development projects
  5. Public works projects, such as roads, bridges, and flood control facilities

It is important to note that CEQA does not prohibit any specific activities or substances. Instead, it requires agencies to follow a protocol of analysis and public disclosure of environmental impacts before making a decision on a proposed project15. The purpose of CEQA is to ensure that environmental considerations are factored into the decision-making process and to promote transparency and public participation.

Structure and Key Provisions

The California Environmental Quality Act is codified in the California Public Resources Code, Division 1316. The act is further clarified and interpreted through the CEQA Guidelines, which are found in Title 14 of the California Code of Regulations, Division 6, Chapter 3, Sections 15000-1538717.

Key Provisions

  • Purpose and Policy (Sections 21000-21006): These sections outline the legislative intent behind CEQA and the state's policy of protecting the environment.

  • Definitions (Sections 21060-21072): This part defines key terms used throughout the act, such as "project," "environment," and "significant effect."

  • Application of CEQA (Sections 21080-21098): These sections describe the types of projects subject to CEQA, exemptions, and the responsibilities of lead and responsible agencies.

  • Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) (Sections 21100-21108): This part details the requirements for preparing, reviewing, and certifying EIRs, which are the primary documents used to evaluate a project's environmental impacts.

  • Negative Declarations (Sections 21080-21081): These sections cover the use of Negative Declarations, which are issued when a project is found to have no significant environmental impacts.

  • Litigation and Enforcement (Sections 21167-21168.6.8): This part addresses legal challenges to CEQA decisions and enforcement of the act's provisions.

It is crucial for project proponents and agencies to carefully review the specific provisions of CEQA and the CEQA Guidelines that apply to their project. Consultation with legal counsel and environmental professionals is often necessary to ensure compliance with the act's complex requirements.


Regulatory Standards & Limitations

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) establishes various standards and limitations to protect the environment and ensure sustainable development. These include:

  1. Environmental Impact Assessment: CEQA requires state and local agencies to identify and assess the significant environmental impacts of their proposed projects, such as emissions, water usage, and land use changes.18

  2. Mitigation Measures: Agencies must implement feasible measures to mitigate or avoid significant environmental impacts identified in the assessment process.19

  3. Alternatives Analysis: CEQA mandates that agencies consider alternatives to the proposed project that could reduce or eliminate significant environmental impacts.20

These standards are implemented through the preparation of Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) or Negative Declarations, which are reviewed and approved by the relevant agencies. Enforcement is carried out through legal challenges, agency oversight, and public participation in the CEQA process.21

Monitoring, Reporting & Recordkeeping Obligations

Under CEQA, regulated entities are subject to various monitoring, reporting, and recordkeeping requirements, depending on the nature and scope of their projects. These obligations may include:

  1. Environmental Monitoring: Conducting regular monitoring of emissions, water quality, and other environmental indicators to ensure compliance with CEQA standards and mitigation measures.22

  2. Reporting: Submitting periodic reports to the relevant agencies documenting compliance with CEQA requirements and the effectiveness of mitigation measures.23

  3. Recordkeeping: Maintaining accurate records of environmental monitoring data, compliance activities, and other relevant information for a specified period.24

Developers and consultants should work closely with the appropriate agencies to understand and fulfill the specific monitoring, reporting, and recordkeeping requirements applicable to their projects.

Enforcement Actions & Penalties

The California Environmental Quality Act provides for various enforcement actions and penalties in cases of non-compliance. These may include:

  1. Notices of Violation: Agencies may issue notices of violation to regulated entities for failing to comply with CEQA requirements, such as inadequate environmental impact assessments or failure to implement mitigation measures.25

  2. Administrative Orders: Agencies may issue administrative orders requiring regulated entities to take corrective actions or cease activities that violate CEQA standards.26

  3. Civil and Criminal Penalties: In severe cases, non-compliance with CEQA may result in civil or criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment.27

To avoid enforcement actions and penalties, it is crucial for developers and consultants to prioritize proactive compliance and engage early with the relevant agencies. Consulting the full text of CEQA and working closely with the agencies can help ensure a clear understanding of the specific enforcement provisions and penalty structures applicable to their projects.


Recent Developments & Regulatory Outlook

In recent years, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) has undergone several significant developments that have shaped the current regulatory landscape. One notable change was the adoption of Senate Bill 743 (SB 743) in 2013, which mandated a shift from using level of service (LOS) to vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as the primary metric for evaluating transportation impacts under CEQA. This change, which took effect statewide on July 1, 2020, has had a profound impact on the way transportation projects are analyzed and mitigated.

Another important development was the California Supreme Court's decision in the case of Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (2018), also known as the "Friant Ranch" case. The court's ruling clarified the standard for evaluating the adequacy of an Environmental Impact Report's (EIR) analysis of air quality impacts, emphasizing the need for a clear connection between a project's emissions and their potential health effects.

Looking ahead, there are several proposed amendments and regulatory changes that could further modify the implementation of CEQA. For example, the Governor's Office of Planning and Research (OPR) is currently working on updates to the CEQA Guidelines related to climate change, wildfire risk, and transportation.28 These updates, once finalized, could provide additional guidance and requirements for analyzing these critical environmental issues in CEQA documents.

To stay informed about these and other developments, stakeholders should regularly monitor the websites of key agencies, such as the California Natural Resources Agency and the Governor's Office of Planning and Research, and subscribe to their mailing lists. Engaging with industry associations, such as the Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP) and the California Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP), can also provide valuable insights and opportunities to participate in the regulatory process.

Additional Resources

Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP) CEQA Portal: Online resource hub with CEQA news, case law updates, training materials, and other valuable information for environmental professionals.29


  1. Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21000 et seq.

  2. Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21000(g).

  3. Governor's Office of Planning and Research, "CEQA: The California Environmental Quality Act," 2022, https://opr.ca.gov/ceqa/

  4. Cal. Nat. Res. Agency, "CEQA Guidelines," 2018, https://resources.ca.gov/CNRALegacyFiles/ceqa/docs/2018_CEQA_FINAL_TEXT_122818.pdf

  5. Cal. Pub. Res. Code §§ 21002, 21061.

  6. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 14, § 15002(i).

  7. Cal. Pub. Res. Code §§ 21080(b), 21084; Cal. Code Regs. tit. 14, §§ 15260-15285, 15300-15333.

  8. Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21060.5; Cal. Code Regs. tit. 14, App. G.

  9. Cal. Pub. Res. Code §§ 21002, 21002.1, 21081; Cal. Code Regs. tit. 14, §§ 15021, 15041, 15064.

  10. Cal. Pub. Res. Code §§ 21000(e), 21003.1; Cal. Code Regs. tit. 14, § 15201.

  11. California Public Resources Code, Division 13, Section 21000(g)

  12. 14 CCR § 15379

  13. 14 CCR § 15002(c)

  14. 14 CCR § 15378(a)

  15. 14 CCR § 15002(a)

  16. California Public Resources Code, Division 13

  17. 14 CCR § 15000 et seq.

  18. California Public Resources Code § 21002.1(a)

  19. California Public Resources Code § 21002.1(b)

  20. California Public Resources Code § 21002

  21. 14 CCR § 15097

  22. 14 CCR § 15097(a)

  23. 14 CCR § 15097(b)

  24. 14 CCR § 15097(c)

  25. California Public Resources Code § 21167.5

  26. California Public Resources Code § 21168.9

  27. California Public Resources Code § 21169

  28. Governor's Office of Planning and Research. (2021). CEQA Guidelines Update. https://opr.ca.gov/ceqa/guidelines-update.html

  29. Association of Environmental Professionals. (2021). CEQA Portal. https://ceqaportal.org/

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A Note to Our Readers: We hope this guide is a valuable resource in helping you better understand the CEQA. However, it's not a substitute for professional advice and doesn't cover every scenario. Always consult with regulatory bodies and professionals for the most current advice and project-specific guidance.