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State Supreme Court Issues Major Ruling on Greenhouse Gas Analysis under CEQA

The California Supreme Court issued a much anticipated ruling setting forth guidance on the analysis of greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the Court reviewed the adequacy of the GHG analysis in an environmental impact report (EIR) for a 40-year (2010-2050) Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP). The specific issue in the case was whether SANDAG properly declined to adopt a significance threshold for GHG emissions in 2050 based on Governor Schwarzenegger’s Executive Order No. S-3-05. The Executive Order sets a GHG emissions-reduction goal of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The Court held that SANDAG’s decision not to use such a significance threshold was not an abuse of discretion. Further, the Court held that the EIR’s discussion of the RTP’s GHG emissions in 2050 satisfied CEQA’s information and disclosure requirements. Although the Court emphasized the narrowness of its decision and its specificity to the facts of the case, the Court’s overall discussion provides important principles to guide GHG analysis under CEQA.

The SANDAG EIR analyzed GHG emissions under three thresholds. The first threshold (GHG-1) analyzed the increase, compared to a 2010 baseline, in overall regional GHG emissions under the RTP, in the years 2020, 2035 and 2050. The EIR concluded that the impact in 2020 would be less than significant because emissions would decrease below 2010 levels. GHG emissions in 2035 and 2050 would be greater than 2010, so the EIR determined that impacts in those years would be significant. The second threshold (GHG-2) analyzed the RTP’s consistency with the specific GHG reduction targets for cars and light-trucks by 2020 and 2035 for the SANDAG RTP adopted pursuant to SB 375. SANDAG found the RTP would meet those targets. The third threshold (GHG-3) analyzed the RTP’s consistency with SANDAG’s own Climate Action Strategy and the state’s Scoping Plan for AB 32 (California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006), which contains measures to reduce GHG emissions statewide to 1990 levels by 2020. None of the EIR’s significance thresholds measured consistency with the Executive Order’s emissions-reduction target for 2050.

The Court ruled that SANDAG was not required to use the Executive Order’s 2050 goal as a significance threshold for GHG impacts because: (1) it is not an “adopted” target within the meaning of CEQA Guidelines section 15064.4(b)(2); (2) the Executive Order does not specify any plan or implementation measures to achieve its goal; and (3) there is no regulatory guidance on how the Executive Order’s goal translates into a regional target for a land use and transportation plan such as the RTP.

Nevertheless, the Court held that the ruling on the significance threshold requirement was not dispositive. The Court went on to analyze whether the EIR had adequately disclosed GHG emissions under the RTP in relation to the Executive Order’s 2050 goal. The Court held that the EIR was adequate in this regard for the following reasons. The EIR disclosed the fact the GHG emissions in 2050 would increase over existing conditions, which allowed the public to compare this increase under the Plan with the Executive’s Order’s reduction goal. The EIR “does not obscure the existence or contextual significance of the Executive Order’s target,” which identifies the amount of “reduction efforts that the scientific community believes necessary to stabilize the climate.” The Court held that the EIR met CEQA’s core purposes of informing the public and decision makers of the nature and magnitude of the project’s significant environmental impacts due to GHG emissions.

The Court emphasized the narrowness of its holding. It stated that the ruling was confined to the adequacy of the EIR’s GHG analysis at the time it was performed, based on the type of plan at issue. The Court emphasized that its ruling does not mean that the SANDAG EIR’s analysis can serve as a “template” for other agencies’ EIRs. Nevertheless, there are elements of the decision that provide important general guidance for GHG analysis under CEQA. The Court acknowledges that this is an evolving area of law. The information, science, regulatory environment, and technology related to GHG and reduction measures continue to change. The Court endorsed the general principle that the analysis of impacts under CEQA should be based on currently available scientific and factual information but is limited by feasibility — speculative analysis is not required. The Court noted that “[a]s more and better data becomes available,” GHG analysis will likely improve. The Court specifically acknowledged examples of changes since the EIR at issue in the case was prepared in 2010. The Court discussed the passage of SB 32 in 2016 which set a new statewide GHG reduction target of 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. The Court stated that the development of regulations under the new 2030 Scoping Plan Update “may further clarify the way forward for public agencies to meet the state’s 2050 climate goals”. Agencies “must ensure that CEQA analysis stays in step with evolving scientific knowledge and state regulatory schemes”.

This case and the Supreme Court’s prior decision on the Newhall Ranch development (Center for Biological Diversity v. California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (2015) 62 Cal.4th 204) are the lead cases to-date on GHG analysis under CEQA. Neither case provides a clear, standardized methodology for conducting the analysis. Therefore, agencies will need to continue to refine and revise their GHG analysis to reflect the most current information and regulations applicable to the type of project being considered. Our firm continues to be at the forefront of helping agencies navigate this challenging CEQA issue by helping to develop the most up-to-date and defensible methodology for GHG impact analysis.

If you have questions regarding this case or GHG analysis under CEQA, please contact Timothy Cremin or Amrit Kulkarni.