BAAQMD Modifies its CEQA Thresholds for Evaluating the Significance of Climate Impacts from Land Use Projects and Plans

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On April 20, 2022, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) adopted changes to its thresholds for evaluating the significance of climate impacts from land use projects and plans under CEQA.  These thresholds of significance changes are important because they can be used by agencies as guidelines for determining climate impacts from projects subject to CEQA.  However, it is important to note that agencies are not required to abide by these thresholds, as they are only guidelines.

Under CEQA, BAAQMD has different roles, including acting at times as a lead agency, responsible agency, or commenting agency, and it supports lead agencies by providing thresholds, guidance, and tools.  In its role of providing thresholds, BAAQMD first adopted CEQA thresholds for evaluating the significance of climate impacts from land use projects and plans in 2010.  The current update of these thresholds includes a more qualitative approach to analyzing climate impacts.  As described in the Draft Justification Report, the update is driven by many factors, including new state greenhouse gas (GHG) targets (AB 32’s 2020 targets were replaced by SB 32, and California Air Resources Board’s 2017 Scoping Plan set 2030 targets), Executive Order B-55-18 called for carbon neutrality no later than 2045, local governments asked the Air District to update its GHG thresholds to support their planning, and case law has continued to evolve.

Updated Thresholds for Both Land Use Projects and Plans

The newly adopted thresholds will affect land use projects as well as land use plans, and are recommended to apply to future projects, as well as current projects that have not yet prepared a Notice of Preparation.  Regarding land use projects, the 2010 thresholds took a quantitative approach, and the new thresholds take a qualitative approach, in which design elements will need to support the state in meeting 2030 GHG targets and state-wide carbon neutrality targets.  In place of numerical thresholds, there will be a focus on the design of a project as well as building operations and transportation, which will avoid locking in GHG sources that will be producing emissions after long-term targets need to be met.

At a minimum, building projects cannot include natural gas appliances or natural gas plumbing, and cannot result in any wasteful, inefficient, or unnecessary energy usage as determined by the analysis required under CEQA section 21100(b)(3) and State CEQA Guidelines section 15126.2(b).

At a minimum, transportation projects must achieve compliance with electric vehicle requirements in the most recently adopted version of CALGreen Tier 2.  The project must also achieve a reduction in project-generated vehicle miles traveled (VMT) below the regional average consistent with the current version of the California Climate Change Scoping Plan, or meet a locally adopted SB 743 VMT target.  The target reflects the recommendations from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research’s Technical Advisory on Evaluating Transportation Impacts in CEQA, which includes 15% below the existing VMT per capita for residential projects, 15% below the existing VMT per employee for office projects, and no net increase in existing VMT for retail projects.

Thresholds for long-range plans must meet the state’s goals to reduce emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2045.

In the alternative, building and transportation projects and long-range plans can instead be consistent with a local GHG Reduction Strategy that meets the criteria under CEQA Guidelines section 15183.5(b).  Section 15183.5 covers the tiering and streamlining of GHG analysis and establishes that lead agencies may analyze and mitigate the significant effects of GHGs at a programmatic level, like a separate plan to reduce GHGs, which is detailed in subsection (b).

Draft Justification Report

The Draft Justification Report includes the details above and further describes the Air District’s framework for analyzing climate impacts under CEQA, including that land use projects must be built to be carbon neutral by 2045, and community-wide plans must guide the community to be carbon neutral by 2045.  The thresholds for land use development projects will determine a project’s “Fair Share” in achieving California’s climate goals and state how the design elements connect to California’s 2030 and 2045 climate goals.  Additionally, the thresholds for community-wide planning documents will highlight the importance of adopting local Climate Action Plans (CAPs).

Stakeholder Engagement

In finalizing the thresholds, BAAQMD worked to engage stakeholders, hosting focus groups, public workshops, and Board presentations.  In its April 20, 2022 presentation, the Air District discussed the overall support for the approach, as well as some common concerns, which included that certain projects may involve special uses with limited alternatives to natural gas, it may be difficult for local CAPs to demonstrate carbon neutrality, and that rural communities can find it difficult to meet SB 743 VMT reductions.

Conclusion

Overall, it is important to keep in mind that these thresholds are not requirements, and while some stakeholders’ concerns may still be present, BAAQMD’s newly adopted updated CEQA thresholds for evaluating the significance of climate impacts from land use projects and plans will allow for a qualitative approach that is focused on meeting updated GHG and carbon neutrality targets.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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