CA Court of Appeal Issues First Decision on CEQA and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The California Court of Appeal issued its first decision on the analysis and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The Court ruled that the mitigation of GHGs for a large refinery project was inadequate under CEQA and set aside the environmental impact report (EIR) prepared for the project. In Communities For A Better Environment v. City of Richmond, several environmental groups challenged the City's adoption of a mitigation measure which required the development of a mitigation plan, within one year after the Project approval, to completely reduce the refinery project's new GHG emissions. The Court ruled the mitigation violated CEQA because no specific measures were required, and there was no evidence of the amount of GHG reductions that would result from the proposed measures. The Court found that, in situations where the feasibility of mitigations is not known, the mitigations must be reviewed and analyzed as part of the CEQA public process, not deferred to the future. In addition, the Court was critical of the analysis of GHGs in the EIR which did not articulate a clear standard for determining the significance of Project impacts. The Court also ruled that the EIR's project description violated CEQA, but rejected a challenge based on "piecemealing" of the Project.
The most important aspect of this case is that it establishes legal authority on CEQA requirements for the analysis of GHGs. The Court stated that new recent scientific information on GHGs and their cumulative impact on climate change should be analyzed in the revised EIR. Specific mitigations and an analysis of their efficacy should be included in the revised EIR and subject to public comment and review. The Court acknowledged the difficulties presented by "evolving technologies and scientific protocols" regarding GHGs, but found that these did not excuse the City from its obligation under CEQA to analyze and mitigate environmental impacts. The combination of this case and the recent adoption of the new CEQA Guidelines requiring the analysis of GHGs, makes clear that GHGs must be addressed in CEQA documents. The one important area that awaits further legal guidance is the proper standard for determining whether a project's GHG emissions are a significant cumulative impact. Local air districts are providing guidance on this issue, but the legal adequacy of a significance threshold has not yet been addressed by the courts.
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