State High Court Says Regional Entity Has Discretion in Environmental Analysis

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In a narrowly drafted ruling, the California Supreme Court upheld a regional government body’s discretion regarding the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions analysis it included in the environmental impact report (EIR) under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for its regional transportation plan.

While the court emphasized that its decision was “not a general endorsement of the adequacy” of the EIR prepared by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) and cautioned that its “conclusion that SANDAG did not abuse its discretion in its analysis of greenhouse gas emissions in the 2011 EIR does not mean that this analysis can serve as a template for future EIRs[,]” its ruling supported the result advocated in a friend-of-the-court brief joined by the California Chamber of Commerce in the case, Cleveland National Forest Foundation et al. v. SANDAG (S223603).

Background

In late 2011, SANDAG certified the EIR for its regional transportation plan/sustainable communities strategy (Plan). The Plan outlined mobility options for people and goods in the San Diego region for a 40-year period ending in 2050. The EIR set forth an analysis of the Plan’s environmental effects, including its projected impact on the region’s GHG emissions.

Several groups, including the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and the Center for Biological Diversity, challenged the EIR in court, arguing SANDAG should have analyzed the consistency between the Plan’s GHG emission impacts and GHG emission reduction goals set out in a 2005 executive order (2005 EO) by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The 2005 EO called for reducing GHG emissions in California to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

In its final EIR, SANDAG had acknowledged the “aspirational nature” of the 2005 EO’s GHG emissions target, but explained it “chose not to use” the 2050 GHG emissions reduction target in the 2005 EO as a “threshold of significance” because the 2005 EO “is not an adopted GHG reduction plan within the meaning of” the CEQA Guidelines and “because SANDAG’s role in achieving this target is uncertain and likely small.”

Lower Court Rulings

The superior court found in favor of the plaintiffs, finding the EIR failed to fulfill its role as an informational document because it did not analyze the consistency between the Plan’s GHG emission impacts and the 2005 EO’s GHG emission reduction goals.

SANDAG appealed, arguing the EIR complied with CEQA, and the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and other environmental organizations cross-appealed. The California Attorney General intervened and also cross-appealed separately.

The Court of Appeal largely agreed with the plaintiffs and affirmed the trial court’s judgment setting aside the EIR certification, but modified the judgment to require that a subsequent EIR fix most of the alleged deficiencies identified in the cross-appeals.

Supreme Court Decision

In its decision, published July 13, 2017, the Supreme Court noted that the EIR “does not obscure the existence or contextual significance” of the 2005 EO’s 2050 GHG emissions reduction target. “The EIR makes clear that the 2050 target is part of the regulatory setting in which the Plan will operate,” the court wrote.

“Although there were perhaps clearer or more graphic ways the EIR could have facilitated a comparison between 2050 projected emissions” and the 2005 EO’s GHG emissions reduction target, the Supreme Court wrote, “the EIR presented the information enabling that comparison ‘in a manner calculated to adequately inform the public and decision makers, who may not be previously familiar with the details of the project.’”

The Supreme Court added “it was not difficult for the public, reading the EIR, to compare the upward trajectory of projected greenhouse gas emissions under the Plan from 2020 through 2050 with the [2005 EO’s] goal of reducing emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.”

“Moreover, SANDAG did not abuse its discretion in declining to adopt the 2050 goal as a measure of significance in light of the fact that the Executive Order does not specify any plan or implementation measures to achieve its goal,” the Supreme Court said.

“In sum, nothing we say today invites regional planners to ‘shirk their responsibilities’ under CEQA or other environmental statutes… To the contrary, we affirm that planning agencies like SANDAG must ensure that CEQA analysis stays in step with evolving scientific knowledge and state regulatory schemes.”

Staff Contact: Louinda Lacey

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Louinda Lacey
About Louinda Lacey
Louinda V. Lacey joined the CalChamber in January 2017 as a policy advocate specializing in environmental policy, housing and land use, and product regulation issues. She previously provided regulatory compliance advice and enforcement defense services to businesses and individuals with a focus on environmental laws and regulations at her own Sacramento-based law firm. She holds a B.S. in business administration and an M.B.A. in finance from California State University, Sacramento. She earned her J.D. with great distinction from McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific, with a Certificate in Environmental Law, graduating as valedictorian of the evening division class.