In a 2-1 decision, the Fourth District Court of Appeal concluded that the environmental impact report (EIR) for a regional transportation plan for the San Diego area was inadequate because it did not apply a long-term greenhouse gas emissions reduction target contained in a 2005 Executive Order. The opinion, Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments, Case No. D063288, was filed Nov. 24, 2014, includes a vigorous dissent, and is available here.
The case involved the 2050 Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy, adopted in 2011 by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). The Regional Transportation Plan calls for investing $214 billion in local, state and federal transportation funds over the next 40 years for transit projects and improvements to highways, roads and streets. The Sustainable Communities Strategy is designed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to state-mandated levels over time. The San Diego region was the first region in California to produce a Regional Transportation Plan that includes a Sustainable Communities Plan, as required by Senate Bill 375.
At issue in the case was a 2005 Executive Order issued by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Executive Order established reduction targets for GHG emissions, including a target of 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Following the 2005 Executive Order, the Legislature enacted the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32) and the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008 (SB 375). SB 375 requires the California Air Resources Board to establish regional reduction targets for GHG emissions from cars and light duty trucks for 2020 and 2035, and to revisit those targets every eight years through 2050 or sooner if circumstances warrant. The Air Resources Board set initial regional reduction goals for 2020 and 2035, but not beyond.
The program EIR for SANDAG’s Regional Transportation Plan applied three different thresholds to analyze the significance of GHG emissions, based on CEQA Guidelines section 15064.4. The EIR’s analysis included standards tied to the years 2020 and 2035. The EIR discussed the Executive Order’s 2050 reduction target, but explained it did not apply it to the analysis because the Air Resources Board had not yet developed such a formal target. The EIR found the proposed transportation plan would lead to GHG emissions reductions through 2020, but increases in emissions after that.
The petitioners, Cleveland National Forest Foundation and Sierra Club, challenged the EIR on several grounds under CEQA. Among other things, the petitioners found fault with the EIR because it did not analyze longer term GHG emissions impacts under the goal contained in the 2005 Executive Order. SANDAG argued the EIR could not apply policy goals contained in the Executive Order because no statute or regulation had translated the Order’s goals into “comparable, scientifically based emissions reduction targets.”
The majority agreed with the petitioners that the EIR’s GHG impacts analysis was deficient. According to the majority opinion, the failure to use the Executive Order’s 2050 target as a significance threshold violated CEQA’s requirement for a “reasonable, good faith effort at full disclosure.” The majority referred to the omission as a failure to perform a “consistency analysis” with the Executive Order.
The majority also held that the EIR violated CEQA by failing to analyze a reasonable range of project alternatives, failing to adequately analyze and mitigate the transportation plan’s air quality impacts, improperly deferring the formulation of mitigation, and understating the plan’s impacts on agricultural lands.
The dissent described the majority’s requirement of a “consistency analysis” with the Executive Order as “judicial fiat, pure and simple” and “a new formulation of the law.” The dissent stated that a policy directive from the Governor’s office does not constitute a required threshold of significance under CEQA. According to the dissent, in the absence of the Legislature’s independent action in tasking the Air Resources Board with adopting regional 2050 GHG targets, the EIR was not required to consider the broad 2050 goals contained in the Executive Order.