Lead Agencies Need Not (Necessarily) Consider Governor’s Executive Orders When Analyzing Emissions - California Supreme Court Finding Serves as a Key Victory for Public Agencies

by Best Best & Krieger LLP

Best Best & Krieger LLP

In a highly anticipated decision, Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments, the California Supreme Court held recently that an environmental impact report for a regional transportation plan does not necessarily need to include an analysis of the plan’s consistency with the greenhouse gas emission reduction goals reflected in executive orders issued by Gov. Jerry Brown.
While the opinion is limited and the Court recognized that public agencies must “ensure that [GHG analyses] stay in step with evolving scientific knowledge and state regulatory schemes,” the decision serves as a key victory for public agencies statewide and an important reminder of the discretion the California Environmental Quality Act vests in public agencies when conducting CEQA review.
The EIR at issue was for the San Diego Association of Government’s 2050 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy. While the EIR included a lengthy analysis of several GHG thresholds, using its discretion, SANDAG chose not to use Executive Order S-3-05 (which includes a GHG reduction target for California to reduce emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050) as a GHG threshold.
In certifying the EIR, SANDAG maintained that it had no obligation to analyze project emissions against the executive order because it was “not an adopted GHG reduction plan” within the meaning of CEQA and the State CEQA guidelines.
After the trial court and Court of Appeal determined that SANDAG had erred in its analysis, the California Supreme Court granted review on the narrow issue of whether SANDAG was required to include an analysis of the plan’s consistency with the GHG reduction goals reflected in the executive order.
The Supreme Court observed that climate change is a continually developing area of science and the executive order does not specify any plan or implementation measures to achieve its goals. The Court concluded that SANDAG did not abuse its discretion in declining to adopt the executive order as a threshold of significance. The Court also noted that SANDAG had, in fact, conducted a lengthy GHG impact analysis, including an analysis of emissions until 2050. This analysis, the Court reasoned, presented sufficient information to inform the public that implementation of the plan would lead to an overall increase in GHG emissions, thus resulting in a significant impact for which mitigation was required.
Despite this ruling, the Court took steps to emphasize the narrowness of its decision. It noted that, under CEQA, “[t]he determination of whether a project may have a significant effect on the environment calls for careful judgment on the part of the public agency involved, based to the extent possible on scientific and factual data.”
As science continues to evolve and more data becomes available, the Court noted that the “analysis of the impact of regional transportation plans on [GHGs] will likely improve.”
As a result, regional planning agencies, and lead agencies in general, must continue to stay abreast of scientific developments in this area to ensure that their analyses continue to be supported by substantial evidence.

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