Court of Appeal Addresses Greenhouse Gas Emissions Analysis Under CEQA

"Substantial Evidence" Requires Calculations of Existing Emissions and a Reasoned Determination of How Mitigation Measures Reduce Emissions

The Court of Appeal for the Third District issued its ruling Monday in Friends of Oroville v. City of Oroville. Finding an environmental impact report’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) analysis deficient, the court’s ruling provides a road map as to what constitutes substantial evidence supporting an agency’s GHG impacts determination under CEQA. It also confirms that a lead agency may employ a threshold of significance for GHG emissions which asks whether a project would hinder or delay the state’s ability to meet AB 32’s reduction targets.

In a challenge to the City of Oroville’s environmental impact report (EIR) for a Walmart expansion, the court concluded there was insufficient evidence supporting the city’s finding that the project’s GHG emissions would have a less than significant environmental impact after mitigation. The ruling was primarily based on the city’s failure to calculate the existing Walmart’s emissions, and failure to either quantitatively or qualitatively estimate the effect of the project’s mitigation measures on emissions. These calculations, the court concluded, must be done before the city can reasonably determine whether a project’s GHG emissions will result in a significant or less than significant impact.

The court also rejected the EIR’s comparison of project GHG emissions against statewide emissions as a basis for determining whether the project supports or hinders the state’s ability to meet AB 32’s GHG reduction goals. Calling this comparison “meaningless” and “a comparison worse than apples to oranges” the court noted that the emissions of a single store would always look insignificant against California’s total emissions. The relevant question for the project at issue was instead whether a project represents a reduction of emissions in line with AB 32’s goal of reducing “business-as-usual” emissions by approximately 30 percent by the year 2020. 

Similarly, the court rejected the EIR’s reasoning that consistency with the AB 32 Scoping Plan was substantial evidence supporting the determination that impacts would be less than significant. The Scoping Plan, developed by the California Air Resources Board, outlines policies and measures to achieve the goals of AB 32, yet most do not apply to individual development projects. The court held that placing such weight on Scoping Plan consistency to sustain the city’s finding ignores the fact that the EIR did not provide figures regarding the existing store’s emissions, or the effect of the project’s mitigation measures.

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