First District Court of Appeal upholds EIR for Plan Bay Area that correctly excluded statewide emissions reductions in developing strategies to meet SB 375’s emissions targets

In Bay Area Citizens v. Association of Bay Area Governments (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 966, the First District Court of Appeal interpreted SB 375 as requiring the California Air Resources Board (Board) and regional agencies to set and meet the emissions reductions targets through regionally developed land use and transportation strategies that are independent of existing statewide clean technology mandates.  Therefore, the court of appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision, finding that the appellant’s claims about the inadequacy of the EIR failed because they were based on a misinterpretation of SB 375’s requirements.

SB 375 requires the Board to provide greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets to each region while taking into account statewide mandates such as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard and the New Vehicle Emissions Standards. Then each regional metropolitan planning organization (MPO) must prepare a sustainable communities strategy to meet those targets. The Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments (collectively, the Agencies) prepared Plan Bay Area. The appellants commented on the Plan’s EIR stating that the Agencies should have counted reductions expected from preexisting statewide mandates. However, when the Board’s staff conducted a technical review of the Plan they stated that the Agencies had appropriately excluded greenhouse gas emissions reductions from other technology and fuel programs. The Board then issued an executive order with the staff’s technical report attached, accepting that Plan Bay Area, if implemented, would achieve the targets.

The appellants filed a petition alleging that the Agencies failed to comply with CEQA because they falsely relied on the assumption that SB 375 compelled them to exclude consideration of the statewide mandates when assessing strategies for meeting the emissions reductions targets. First, the court looked to the plain meaning and purpose of the statute and found that because the emissions reductions from the statewide mandates are projected to dwarf those achieved by SB 375, the whole statute would be superfluous if the MPOs were simply allowed to cite the expected reductions from preexisting initiatives. Further, the Board’s AB 32 Scoping Plan repeatedly emphasized that the regional land use and transportation strategies were distinct from the statewide mandates. Although the Board was required to take the statewide mandates into account when setting targets under SB 375, they were not compelled to take any specific approach and it was within their power to instruct regions to exclude consideration of reductions expected from statewide mandates. The final technical evaluation of Plan Bay Area clearly stated the Board’s approach when it confirmed that the Agencies correctly declined to include statewide mandates because they were not counted toward the adopted targets. The court went on to say that even if the legislation did not require exclusion of reductions from statewide mandates, the Board had discretion to do so.

Next, the court addressed the claims about the inadequacy of the Plan’s EIR. The court found that the appellant’s arguments were based on their misinterpretation of SB 375 and deemed the EIR adequate. The Agencies were not required to consider the appellants proposed alternative that relied on statewide mandates because, as discussed above, it did not comply with SB 375 and was therefore infeasible. Contrary to the appellant’s contentions, the EIR did not ignore statewide mandates. Consideration of the New Vehicle Emissions Standards and the Low Carbon Fuel standard were included when determining whether implementation of the Plan would result in a net increase in emissions and whether it would impede the goals of AB 32. Further, the court found that in light of the Agencies’ sufficient disclosures throughout the EIR, including when they did and did not consider statewide mandates, the appellant’s arguments amounted to an impermissible substantive attack on Plan Bay Area.