Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. City of Manhattan Beach

(2011) 52 Cal.4th 155

The California Supreme Court upheld the City of Manhattan Beach’s decision to ban plastic bags on the basis of a negative declaration. In its opinion, the court dealt with two issues arising under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA): (1) standing and (2) the fair argument standard of review. Petitioner, a coalition of plastic bag manufacturers and distributors, claimed standing to maintain a citizen suit under CEQA. On the merits of the case, Petitioner argued that the evidence in the record supported a fair argument that the ban would increase environmental damage, so that an EIR was required. The Court ruled for Petitioner on the procedural issue and against Petitioner on the merits. The Court rejected a heightened standard to maintain standing for corporations, following the trend in the United States Supreme Court, seeming to place corporations and natural persons on equal footing.

The Court’s decision on the merits was more narrowly tailored, reversing the lower courts which had held the city had to prepare an EIR before implementing a ban on plastic bags. The Court found that the evidence cited by Petitioner regarding the “life cycle” analysis of paper and plastic bags was not substantial evidence, even supporting a fair argument, that the City’s actions would result in significant impacts. The Court held that what was relevant were not the impacts of paper or plastic bags on a global scale, but on “the actual scale of the environmental impacts that might follow from increased paper bag use in Manhattan Beach [a city of 40,000 people].” In reaching its conclusions, the court repeatedly emphasized that in CEQA, the analysis should focus on the local environment, citing Public Resources Code section 21151, subd. (b) (“any significant effect on the environment shall be limited to substantial, or potentially substantial, adverse changes in physical conditions which exist within the area as defined in Section 21060.5”) and section 21060.5 (the physical conditions which exist within the area which will be affected by a proposed project, including land, air, water, minerals, flora, fauna, noise, [and] objects of historic or aesthetic significance”). While the court stressed that the focus and depth of the analysis must be on local impacts, CEQA does require a consideration of impacts outside the boundaries of the project area, if such impacts will occur, but “[t]his does not mean, however, that an agency is required to conduct an exhaustive analysis of all conceivable impacts a project may have in areas outside its geographical boundaries. ‘[T]hat the effects will be felt outside of the project area . . . is one of the factors that determines the amount of detail required in any discussion. Less detail, for example, would be required where those effects are more indirect than effects felt within the project area, or where it [would] be difficult to predict them with any accuracy.”’ Here, because the City was not expecting a huge increase in the use of paper bags for a variety of reasons, “the city could evaluate the broader environmental impacts of the ordinance at a reasonably high level of generality.” [RMM Partner James G. Moose and Senior Counsel Jennifer S. Holman filed a brief for Californians Against Waste as Amici Curiae on behalf of the City of Manhattan Beach. Mr. Moose also presented the arguments on the merits of the CEQA suit on behalf of amicus and in support of the City’s position.]