Appeals Court Rules: Project Consistency with GHG Plan Sufficient Under CEQA

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A recent appeals court decision provides further guidance on what qualifies as an adequate greenhouse gas (GHG) impact analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The decision in Mission Bay Alliance v. Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure et al. is one of the first published cases addressing the sufficiency of a GHG impacts analysis under CEQA since the state Supreme Court decision in the Center for Biological Diversity et al. v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife and The Newhall Ranch and Farming Company.

Warriors Arena Challenge

The Mission Bay Alliance case involved a challenge to the San Francisco Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure’s (OCII) November 3, 2015 approval of the new Golden State Warriors arena, two office and retail structures, parking facilities and open space in San Francisco.

The case may provide some guidance for lead agencies that choose to rely solely on existing GHG reduction plans to demonstrate a less-than-significant impact, but relying on a plan in and of itself is not enough. Lead agencies must demonstrate, through substantial evidence in the record, that relying on the plan will, in fact, result in a less-than-significant GHG emissions impact.

Unfortunately, CEQA is a fact-intensive law, and predicting with certainty whether a GHG analysis will be deemed adequate by the courts will remain difficult, if not impossible, to predict.

Background

Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. had certified the Warriors arena as an “environmental leadership development project” under AB 900 (Buchanan; D-Alamo, 2011). AB 900 provided expedited judicial review for projects under CEQA that meet certain criteria, including that the project does not result in any net GHG emissions.

The Air Resources Board (ARB) staff conducted a technical evaluation of the GHG estimates and voluntary mitigation contained in the AB 900 application, and concluded that the proposed project would not result in any net additional GHG emissions.

Despite the ARB determination, the parties agreed that the Governor’s AB 900 certification did not constitute a substitute for a CEQA determination on the significance of GHG emissions and therefore was irrelevant for purposes of the case.

Ultimately, the case turned on the adequacy of the GHG analysis in the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (FSEIR) relied upon by the San Francisco OCII in approving the project.

The City’s GHG Analysis

At a basic level, the FSEIR concluded that the Warriors arena and associated structures would not result in significant GHG emissions because the project would comply with San Francisco’s GHG Reduction Strategy. In relying solely on the consistency with the GHG Reduction Strategy, the FSEIR did not include an individual project-specific analysis of GHG emissions.

The Mission Bay Alliance challenged the adequacy of the GHG analysis, arguing that the city’s exclusive reliance on performance-based standards such as consistency with the GHG Reduction Strategy is inadequate. Rather, the alliance asserted that the GHG analysis must include a quantification of the project’s GHG emissions and calculate the remaining GHG emissions after implementation of the identified mitigation measures.

The trial court ruled in favor of the OCII on July 18, 2016.

Court of Appeal Decision

The California Court of Appeal rejected the petitioner’s claims and upheld the OCII’s GHG analysis, holding that the CEQA Guidelines allow reliance on performance-based standards such as the GHG Reduction Strategy; the Newhall case allows GHG analysis using performance-based standards; and substantial evidence demonstrated that the GHG Reduction Strategy would achieve reductions consistent with state and local targets.

Citing the CEQA Guidelines governing GHG emission analyses, the court noted that the CEQA Guidelines expressly grant lead agencies the discretion to use a model or methodology to quantify GHG emissions and which model to use, and/or rely on a qualitative analysis or performance-based standards.

The Natural Resources Agency, in adopting these guidelines, stated that “CEQA does not require quantification of emissions in every instance . . . . If the lead agency determines that quantification is not possible, would not yield information that would assist in analyzing the project’s impacts and determining the significance of [GHG] emissions, or is not appropriate in the context of the particular project, [the Guidelines] would allow the lead agency to consider qualitative factors or performance standards.”

With this basic framework in mind, the court turned to a different provision in the CEQA Guidelines that authorizes lead agencies to adopt an area-wide plan to reduce GHG emissions and determine that a project’s incremental contribution to climate change is not significant if the project complies with the requirements of the previously adopted plan. That is precisely what the OCII did in this case.

Next, in response to the petitioner’s argument that the Newhall case requires a lead agency to first quantify a project’s GHG emission before analyzing consistency with a reduction plan such as the GHG Reduction Strategy, the court noted that Newhall did not hold that quantifying GHG emissions was required in order to satisfy a party’s CEQA obligations.

Instead, the Newhall decision provided a menu of options for lead agencies in making their GHG significance determinations, including a performance-based methodology in which the lead agency evaluates the significance of a project’s GHG impacts by “looking to compliance with regulatory programs designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Accordingly, the court rejected petitioners’ reliance on the Newhall case.

Having concluded that the OCII appropriately relied on compliance with the GHG Reduction Strategy, the court then looked at the GHG Reduction Strategy itself to determine whether substantial evidence existed demonstrating a less-than-significant impact.

The strategy includes quantifying baseline levels of GHG emissions and planned reductions from the baseline 1990 level of 25% less emissions by 2020, 40% less by 2025 and 80% less by 2050.

The strategy also includes project-specific measures that achieve citywide emissions reductions. The project was shown to be consistent with those previously quantified thresholds, and the city demonstrated that the reductions would help San Francisco attain (and exceed) local and state GHG reduction targets.

Accordingly, even though the FSEIR itself did not quantify reductions, the court nonetheless supported the FSEIR’s conclusion that the project complies with the GHG Reduction Strategy.

Contact: Anthony Samson

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Anthony Samson
About Anthony Samson
Anthony Samson, CalChamber policy advocate for environmental regulation, housing and land use issues from November 2013 through 2016, is senior attorney/policy advisor for Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP. He previously was an attorney at a statewide law firm that specializes in mining, land use, and natural resources law. He earned a B.A. from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and a J.D. from Michigan State University College of Law, where he served as the articles editor of the Michigan State Law Review.