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Bay Area Air Quality District Adopts CEQA Guidelines For Greenhouse Gas and Other Pollutants

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) adopted new CEQA Guidelines for analysis of air quality impacts. For the first time, it includes guidance on the analysis and determination of significant impacts for greenhouse gases (GHGs).The Guidelines set lower emission levels for other pollutants (such as ozone and particulate matter) that will result in a significant impact under CEQA. New standards for toxic air contaminants also are stricter and may make infill development adjacent to freeways and major roadways more difficult.

The standards for GHG emissions for development projects are numerical limits based on two standards:

  1. Overall amount of emissions emitted by a project annually – 1,100 metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent a year; or
  2. An efficiency standard which measures the average amount of emissions for each resident and employee from the project per year – 4.6 metric tons per resident/employee per year.

Alternatively, as permitted under the recently-adopted state CEQA Guidelines, CEQA analysis can be based on consistency with a climate action or GHG reduction plan that meets certain criteria.

The first standard (1,100 metric ton/year) would be likely exceeded by certain size developments, such as 78 apartment units and a 53,000 square foot office building. Therefore, the efficiency standard may be better to use for these larger projects. The Guidelines also require indirect GHG emissions from a project’s energy and water use to be included as part of the project’s emissions. Methodologies for quantifying GHG reductions from mitigation measures are provided. These can support a finding of less than significant impact if the mitigations reduce project emissions below the significance thresholds.

Although agencies are not legally required to use the District’s standards, they will carry great weight and most agencies will not have the time or expertise to develop alternative standards. Agencies which adopt alternative standards may face legal challenges based on inconsistency with the standards set by the District which is viewed as the expert on air quality issues. One alternative to the numeric thresholds that remains available for agencies is the adoption of a climate action or GHG reduction plan which can provide the CEQA analysis for those projects consistent with the plan.

The Guidelines also set lower thresholds of significance for other pollutants that must be evaluated under CEQA (ozone, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter). The thresholds are reduced from 80 pounds per day to 54 pounds per day and apply to construction emissions for the first time. The new stricter standards for analysis of toxic air contaminants (cancer-causing pollutants or TACs) may make it difficult to approve infill development adjacent to freeways or major roadways, which are major sources of diesel soot, a cancer risk factor. Although many commentators expressed this concern, the District said that agencies could adopt Community Risk Reduction Plans to address TACs community-wide as an alternative to analysis of individual projects.

Overall, the new strict standards for GHG and other pollutants may increase the number of projects that have a significant impact and require mitigation measures or the preparation of environmental impact reports under CEQA.

The adoption of the new CEQA Guidelines is a very significant development. For GHG analysis, it establishes strict numerical thresholds, which although voluntary, will likely become the default standards used by agencies. Many agencies will find it difficult to adopt alternative thresholds, although the adoption of climate action or GHG reduction plans may be used as an alternative for CEQA analysis. These Guidelines are also of interest to agencies located outside the Bay Area, since other air quality districts will likely consider the BAAQMD Guidelines in establishing their own CEQA standards for GHGs.

For more information on the new CEQA guidelines and other GHG and climate change issues, please contact Tim Cremin at 800.464.3559.