Court Upholds “Existing Facilities” Categorical Exemption for Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant Lease Replacement

World Business Academy v. California State Lands Commission (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 476.

The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is partially situated on state-owned submerged tidal lands managed by the State Land Commission. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued two 49-year leases before the plant began operating in 1985. In 2015, PG&E submitted an application to the State Lands Commission to replace the leases before they expired. In approving the application, the Commission found that the lease replacement was categorically exempt from CEQA under the Class 1 “existing facilities” categorical exemption.

Two non-profit organizations filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the Commission’s decision. They argued that the lease replacement did not qualify for the “existing facilities” exemption, and even if it did, the “unusual circumstances” exception applied. The trial court rejected these contentions and the petitioners appealed.

Upholding the trial court’s decision, the Court of Appeal first rejected the petitioners’ assertion that the nuclear power plant was not an “existing facility” within the meaning of CEQA Guidelines section 15301. The “existing facilities” exemption covers “the operation, repair, maintenance, permitting, leasing, licensing, or minor alteration of existing public or private structures, facilities, mechanical equipment, or topographical features, involving negligible or no expansion of use beyond that existing at the time of the lead agency’s determination.” (Guidelines, § 15301.) The court held that the lease replacement plainly fit within these terms because the nuclear power plant was an existing facility and the lease replacement would not expand its use. According to the court, the petitioner did not point to any evidence that suggested the lease replacement would expand the plant’s current operative condition.

The court also rejected the petitioners’ contention that the “unusual circumstances” exception precluded the Commission for relying on the exemption. That exception applies “where there is a reasonable possibility that the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances.” (Guidelines, § 15300.2, subd. (c).) The court explained that the party seeking to invoke the unusual circumstances exception is typically required to make a two-part showing: (1) that the project has some feature that distinguishes it from others in the exempt class, such as its size or location, and (2) that there is a reasonable possibility of a significant effect on the environment due to that unusual circumstance. The court found it unnecessary to determine whether the lease replacement presented unusual circumstances (the first part of the test) because, even assuming their existence, the petitioners failed to establish that there was a fair argument that any environmental impacts may occur. In making this determination, the court emphasized that the project was simply a lease replacement, and the environmental impacts alleged by the petitioners were not a change from conditions as they had previously existed under the current leases.