"No More Business as Usual": A Preview of Climate Change and the California Environmental Quality Act in 2011

Posted on January 5, 2011 by Patrick Dennis

As goes California, so goes the rest of the nation? That could be the case with respect to climate change and the regulation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Climate change and the implications of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (also known as AB 32) continue to remain a topic of great debate and speculation nationwide, as well as in California. AB 32 recently survived an initiative challenge during California’s November 2010 election cycle, and deadlines established in AB 32 to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals continue to loom. Recently, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who just left office a few days ago, gave remarks at a California Air Resources Board meeting and acknowledged the “great, great benefits” from the creation of green jobs and venture capital being provided to GHG reduction projects. However, the Governor’s excitement for the benefits of AB 32 and climate change initiatives were tempered by California’s economic reality. According to the Governor:

 


We have to be sensitive because it is an economic downturn and this Air Resources Board knows that they have to be sensitive. But we have to reach our goal by 2020, our reductions of 25 percent and we’ve got to go and have our 33 percent of renewables by 2020. There are no two ways about that.

 


So what does this mean as we look forward to 2011 with a new Governor and lingering fiscal issues?
 

One area of law where climate change is bound to remain an active topic of discussion, and likely litigation and regulatory development, is with respect to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). At the time AB 32 was adopted, there was uncertainty about the type of greenhouse gas emissions analysis that would be required under CEQA, and opponents of development projects filed several lawsuits to challenge projects on that basis. The early California State superior court decisions after passage of AB 32 ran the gamut from not requiring climate change analysis or a discussion of AB 32 , to finding an environmental impact report inadequate for failing to make a meaningful attempt to determine the project’s effect on global warming simply because it was “speculative”. In 2007, California adopted SB 97, which directed the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) to develop recommended amendments to the State CEQA Guidelines for addressing greenhouse gas emissions , with the goal of creating a coordinated policy – instead of a “piecemeal approach dictated by litigation .” The amendments became effective in March 2010.

 


Despite the adoption of the CEQA guidelines amendments, how state and local agencies should analyze and, when necessary, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions still remain somewhat of a mystery, because the amended guidelines and most local governing bodies have fallen short of providing a clear threshold as to what constitutes a significant impact under CEQA, and what should be done to mitigate the impact. However, what we can anticipate for 2011 is that project applicants must “do something” – business as usual (i.e. developing projects without evaluating and, as necessary, reducing GHG emissions) will likely not suffice. The amended guidelines have been adopted, models for quantifying GHG emissions are available, and state and local agencies such as the Attorney General’s Office ) and various air quality management districts have provided recommended mitigation measures and performance-based and numeric thresholds related to climate change. The California Court of Appeal also weighed in on the “do something” mantra in April 2010 in concluding that an environmental impact report was inadequate because it improperly deferred an evaluation of GHG mitigation measures. It held that, “[d]ifficulties caused by evolving technologies and scientific protocols do not justify a lead agency’s failure to meet its responsibilities under CEQA by not even attempting to formulate a legally adequate mitigation plan.”

 


All in all, with AB 32 left intact, the adoption of the new CEQA Guidelines, and the CARB regulatory package for implementation of AB 32 likely to be put in place, 2011 promises to be an active year in California’s legal and regulatory environment – one that the nation will continue to closely monitor as California takes the lead.