CEQA Guidelines Proposed For GHG Emissions Analysis

The Governor's Office of Planning and Research has completed proposed California Environmental Quality Act Guidelines for greenhouse gas emissions. The guidelines now move to the Natural Resources Agency, which intends to invite additional comment and conduct at least two public hearings this summer before releasing a final version.

The proposed guidelines urge lead agencies to quantify greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from projects whenever possible, and not to limit analysis to emissions related to traffic or energy use. The guidelines, however, do permit use of qualitative factors and performance standards when determining whether GHG emissions constitute a significant impact on the environment, a proposal that environmentalists consider a large loophole.

The guidelines strongly suggest that lead agencies use the tiering approach to analyzing GHG emissions, starting with a programmatic analysis that may be incorporated into project-level environmental reviews. The guidelines contain extensive details on using a greenhouse gas reduction plan as a programmatic document. But even compliance with a greenhouse gas reduction plan does not provide an automatic pass, as Guideline 15183.5(b)(2) states, "If there is substantial evidence that the effects of a particular project may be cumulatively considerable notwithstanding the project's compliance with the specified requirements in the greenhouse gas reduction plan, an EIR must be prepared for the project."

The guidelines also make clear that a project's compliance with regional blueprint plans, such as the sustainable communities strategies mandated by SB 375, does not mean a lead agency may automatically determine a project's cumulative impact is less than significant.

Revisions to the guidelines' Appendix F analysis on energy are included "to clarify that EIRs must specifically consider a project's energy use and efficiency potential," OPR Director Cynthia Bryant wrote to Natural Resources Agency Secretary Mike Chrisman in a transmittal letter. However, an earlier version's reference to a "lifecycle" energy analysis has been struck because that term may create confusion, Bryant wrote.

Also proposed for amendment is the Appendix G checklist, although not in the fashion OPR proposed earlier this year. The earlier version eliminated use of level of service (LOS) as a measure for determining the significance of traffic and transportation impacts a change that drew extensive opposition from practitioners and the development community. The revised proposal continues to permit a lead agency to use LOS and other methodologies to assess traffic impacts.

The Office of Planning and Research appeared to incorporate a number of changes in response to the comments on the preliminary draft guidelines released in January.

Although some commenters suggested entirely new approaches to analyzing GHG emissions, OPR stuck with traditional CEQA practices whenever possible, explained Chris Calfee, Natural Resources Agency special counsel.

"Every effort was made to stay true to existing CEQA requirements," Calfee said. And in her letter to Chrisman, Bryant portrayed the proposals as "relatively modest changes" to the existing guidelines.

Senate Bill 97 from 2007 requires OPR to complete proposed guidelines related to GHG analysis and mitigation by July 1, and requires Natural Resources to adopt revised guidelines by January 1, 2010 (see CP&DR Environment Watch, October 2007). The Office of Planning and Research beat its deadline by more than two months. Still, Natural Resources will have to move extraordinarily quickly to adopt the changes by year's end, as CEQA Guidelines revisions often take several years to complete. Calfee credited OPR for doing "a great deal of work on the front end."

Environmentalists and environmental justice advocates appear underwhelmed by the proposed guidelines. Matt Vespa, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco, pointed to what he considers two major flaws: The guidelines do not address how agencies should examine how climate change will impact projects, and the guidelines permit use of state and regional benefits as a basis for overriding local emissions impacts.

Vespa's organization was one of several that urged OPR to include a discussion of likely impacts from climate change, such as rising sea level and increased flooding, more wildfires and dwindling water resources. He pointed out that the attorney general's office recently released a Q&A guidance document that says lead agencies should address hazards such as sea level rise and wildfires.

"I think it's a lack of political will on their part," Vespa said of OPR. "I have seen a number of EIRs that look to OPR's silence on this issue as a reason not to do anything."

Environmental justice advocates are joining Vespa's second point regarding a guideline that permits a lead agency, when adopting a statement of overriding considerations because the impact of emissions cannot be mitigated, to consider state and regional benefits from the project. The concern is that poor communities may bear the burden of projects that benefit the state economically.

Environmentalists are further questioning the potential use of qualitative analyses or performance-base standards for determining GHG significance.

"When people have diabetes, they need exact measurements, not a general description of their condition," the Planning and Conservation League wrote in email correspondence. "The same applies in the fight against global warming; if you don't measure it precisely and address each unit of pollution, we won't solve the problem."

On a different note, Kent Norton, of Michael Brandman Associates in San Bernardino and president of the Association of Environmental Professionals, questioned proposed guideline language on cumulative impacts. As proposed, the guidelines appear to require a list of every potential project, which is not realistic and which could aid "obstructionist" project opponents, he said.

On the issue of climate change's impact on projects, Norton agreed practitioners could use guidance because project opponents are already raising questions about fire risk and water supply when they comment on environmental impact reports. Norton added that the changes to Appendix F ensure that it will no longer be optional for lead agencies to address energy usage and conservation measures.

Overall, Norton endorsed OPR's efforts. "I wouldn't say we are displeased at this point. But I think most people recognize this is going to be an iterative process, and this is a good start," he said.

After Natural Resources publishes the proposed guidelines formally, a 45-day public comment will commence. The agency will likely conduct public hearings toward the end of that period in Los Angeles and in Sacramento, according to Calfee. If Natural Resources changes the proposed guidelines, another round of public comment will open. The final decision on the guidelines rests with Chrisman.

Contacts:
Chris Calfee, Natural Resources Agency, (916) 653-5227.
Kent Norton, Association of Environmental Professionals, (909) 884-2255.
Matt Vespa, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 436-9682.
Proposed guidelines: http://opr.ca.gov/index.php?a=ceqa/index.html