Fifth District Rules CARB Acted in Bad Faith in Selecting Baseline for Analysis of Low Carbon Fuel Standards Regulations

In POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (2017) ___Cal.App.5th___ (Case No. F073340) (“POET II”), the Fifth District Court of Appeal held that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) failed to comply with the terms of the writ of mandate issued by the same court in POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (2013) 218 Cal.App.4th 681 (“POET I”). The court invalidated the trial court’s discharge of the writ, modified the existing writ, and ordered CARB to correct its defective CEQA Environmental Analysis (EA).

Legal and Factual Background
CARB promulgated low carbon fuel standards (LCFS) in 2009 as required by the 2006 California Global Warming Solutions Act (“AB 32”). In promulgating the LCFS, CARB adopted an EA, the regulatory equivalent to an Environmental Impact Report, pursuant to CEQA. Those original regulations and the associated EA were the subject of litigation in POET I, where the Fifth District found that the EA violated CEQA by impermissibly deferring analysis of nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions from biodiesel fuel. The appellate court took the acknowledged “unusual” step of allowing the regulations to remain in effect, pending satisfaction of a writ of mandate (“2014 writ”).

In 2015, in response to the court’s ruling in POET I, CARB produced an updated EA, updated LCFS regulations (2015 regulations), and alternative diesel fuel regulations (ADF regulations). The EA analyzed the project using a 2014 baseline and determined that the regulations would not have significant impacts related to NOx emissions. On the return to the writ, the trial court sided with CARB and discharged the 2014 writ. This appeal followed.

Court’s Analysis
The Court of Appeal applied the abuse of discretion standard to its analysis of whether the lower court’s discharge of the 2014 writ was proper. The court concluded that CARB continued to violate CEQA and the 2014 writ by selecting a 2014 project baseline. The court explained that a normal existing-conditions baseline begins when the project commences and must include all related project activities. In addition, a regulatory scheme is a “project” under CEQA and includes all enactment, implementation, and enforcement activities. Here, the original regulations, 2015 regulations, and ADF regulations were related activities because they concerned the same subject matter, had a shared objective, covered the same geographic area, and were temporally connected.

Thus, by selecting 2014 as the baseline, the court found that the EA failed to consider how the original regulations, which remained in effect during and after POET I, encouraged and increased the use of biodiesel fuel and its effect on NOx emissions. According to the court, selecting such a limited baseline was not even “objectively reasonable” from the point of view of an attorney familiar with CEQA and the Guidelines. In addition, the court found that the flawed CEQA analysis was prejudicial because it deprived the public of a meaningful opportunity to review the effect of the agency’s actions on the environment.

Remedy
On remand, the court ordered that CARB review its project baseline. While declining to require a specific baseline date, CARB was instructed to select a “normal” baseline consistent with the court’s analysis and in any event, to not select a baseline date of 2010 or after. The court implied that the baseline could even have begun in calendar year 2006, consistent with then-Governor Schwarzenegger’s 2007 mandate to the agency to review fuel emissions.

The parties agreed that the ADF regulations were both severable and independently enforceable from the 2015 regulations. The court found that the 2015 regulations were also severable from the remainder of the LCFS regulations because, though more effective in their entirety, the remaining regulations would be complete and retain utility. Ultimately though, like in POET I, the court concluded that, on balance, suspending the regulations would cause more environmental harm than allowing them to remain.

Thus, the court reversed the order discharging the writ and ordered the superior court to modify the writ to compel CARB to amend its analysis of NOx emissions and freeze the existing regulations as they relate to diesel and its substitutes. In addition, the court ordered the superior court to retain jurisdiction, and to require CARB to “proceed diligently, reasonably and in subjective good faith.” Finally, the court ordered that if CARB fails to proceed in this manner, the superior court shall immediately vacate the portion of the writ preserving the existing regulations, and may impose additional sanctions.