Tag: GHG

Environmental Organizations and Air District Secure Remand on Scope of CEQA Remedy in Case Challenging the Port of Los Angeles’ Air Pollution Mitigation Measures

In an opinion filed December 29, 2023, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that the San Diego County Superior Court too narrowly interpreted CEQA’s remedy statute (Public Resources Code section 21168.9). Although the trial court had found that a supplemental EIR (SEIR) certified by the Los Angeles Board Harbor Commissioners violated CEQA in multiple ways, the trial court ordered LABHC only to prepare a revised SEIR, finding that it had no authority under CEQA to issue a broader remedy. The Court of Appeal concluded that the trial court misunderstood the full scope of remedial authority available to the trial court and remanded the case back to the trial court to reconsider the remedy. The Court of Appeal also held that the Port of Los Angeles (Port) lacked substantial evidence to modify certain air quality mitigation measures that had been adopted in connection with a prior EIR prepared for continued operation of the China Shipping Container Terminal at the Port.


The Port of Los Angeles is North America’s largest port, both in terms of container volume and the value of goods handled. Together with the Port of Long Beach, it oversees 64 percent of the West Coast’s maritime trade and 3 percent of the shipping activities across the United States. Spanning 23 cargo terminals, the Port stretches over 43 miles of waterfront. The Los Angeles Harbor Department functions as the Port’s landlord, renting out spaces to tenants who manage cargo operations.

One terminal within the Port is managed by China Shipping, under a lease agreement with Los Angeles Harbor Department. The lease agreement, signed in 2001, grants China Shipping the rights to build and manage the 142-acre terminal over a period of 25 years, with options for renewal. In the case of National Resources Defense Fund v. City of Los Angeles (2002) 103 Cal.App.4th 286 (NRDC I), the Court of Appeal held that the Port was required to prepare an EIR for three planned development phases of the China Shipping terminal.

In 2004, the plaintiffs in NRDC I and the Port reached a court-approved settlement that allowed the Port to finish building the China Shipping terminal and initiate its first operational phase while preparing the court-ordered EIR. In exchange, the Port agreed to incorporate multiple mitigation measures into the project. The settlement also stipulated that the Port must modify its leasing contract with China Shipping to ensure that China Shipping adhered to these mitigation measures, despite not being a party to the settlement.

In 2008, the Port completed an EIR (2008 EIR) for all three construction phases of the terminal and its ongoing operations under a new 40-year lease agreement with China Shipping. The EIR revealed that the operations at the terminal would have significant environmental impacts, particularly on air quality. To address these impacts, the EIR proposed several mitigation measures, including: (1) using 100 percent alternative maritime power by 2011; (2) limiting ship speeds consistent with an expanded vessel speed reduction program; (3) shifting towards the use of cleaner and zero-emission equipment for handling cargo; and (4) increasing the use of liquified natural gas for a larger share of drayage trucks.

Following the 2008 EIR’s certification, the Port failed to amend its leasing agreement with China Shipping to incorporate the recommended mitigation measures. Discussions between the Port and China Shipping reached an impasse, and public documents exposed that the Port had no intention of forcing China Shipping to implement the mitigation measures. Facing public criticism, the Port thereafter announced plans to prepare a SEIR.

In 2019, the Port released a SEIR, detailing revised mitigation measures and asserting that the mitigation measures would be included in the new lease agreement. Despite this, the document did not establish a legal mechanism to enforce the identified mitigation measures, although it did assume that the mitigation measures would be implemented.

Following the SEIR’s certification, environmental organizations and the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) filed separate petitions for writ of mandate, which were later consolidated. The California Air Resources Board and the California Attorney General intervened and the case was transferred to San Diego Superior Court.

The San Diego Superior Court held that the SEIR violated CEQA because none of the proposed mitigation measures was enforceable. Additionally, the trial court concluded that the Port did not have substantial evidence to justify the claim that two mitigation strategies outlined in the 2008 EIR were infeasible. With respect to the remedy, the court held that, in the absence of a consent decree, it could only declare the EIR invalid and order it set aside. In the trial court’s view, it could not order any other remedy because it must not direct the Port as to how to exercise its discretion.

The Court of Appeal’s Opinion

Mitigation Measures

The Court of Appeal first considered the petitioners’ various challenges to the Port’s rejection of suggested mitigation measures as well as the Port’s decision to modify certain mitigation measures adopted in connection with the 2008 EIR. The court held that although substantial evidence supported some of the Port’s mitigation determinations, others lacked sufficient evidentiary support and reasoned explanation.

Aero-Emission Technology for Cargo-Moving Equipment

The petitioners contended that the Port prematurely rejected a potential a pilot program and a subsequent requirement for zero-emission equipment in cargo operations. The Court of Appeal found, however, that substantial evidence supported the Port’s decision to reject this suggested mitigation measure. The Port’s examination of the available technology indicated that zero-emission solutions for cargo-moving equipment do not yet meet the commercial viability or technical standards required for operations at marine terminals. This position was supported by a 2018 Feasibility Study for Cargo-Handling Equipment, which was part of the 2017 Clean Air Action Plan jointly developed by the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. The SEIR concluded that, although promising, zero-emission technologies require further development in terms of technical validation, reliability in operations, and broader industry support from equipment manufacturers. Therefore, at this stage, zero-emission options are not feasible for the existing cargo handling machinery at the terminal. The Court of Appeal found this rationale to be adequate and supported by substantial evidence.

The petitioners also argued that, even if zero-emission equipment is not currently available, the Port should have considered implementing a pilot program for zero or near-zero emission cargo handling machinery. The court rejected this argument, explaining that such a pilot program, being experimental, would not qualify as a mitigation measure because it would not guarantee a reduction in impacts.

Decision to Make a Greenhouse Gas Emissions Fund a Lease Measure (Rather Than a Mitigation Measure)

The 2019 SEIR reported that terminal operations would generate over 10,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, resulting in a significant environmental impact. To minimize this impact, the 2019 SEIR proposed two initiatives: Mitigation Measure GHG-1, which called for upgrades to LED lighting, and “Lease Measure” (LM) GHG-1, which would establish a Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions Fund under which China Shipping would contribute $250,000 annually for eight years to support Port-sanctioned emissions reduction projects or to buy CARB-approved credits. This $2 million total from China Shipping was intended to offset the anticipated excess GHG emissions by 2030, valued according to the carbon credit market rates of 2019.

Petitioner National Resources Defense Council criticized LM GHG-1 for not sufficiently addressing the long-term GHG emissions from the terminal and for the lack of constraints on purchasing offsets. The Port defended LM GHG-1 as a lease-specific initiative, arguing it was not designed as a mitigation measure for the terminal’s significant environmental impacts, and was thus not subject to CEQA’s rigorous standards for mitigation.

The Court of Appeal held that, despite the Port’s claim, LM GHG-1 is a mitigation measure. Indeed, the SEIR’s wording implied that the Port itself views LM GHG-1 as a form of mitigation, with the SEIR repeatedly mentioning that LM GHG-1 would “mitigate” GHG impacts.

More fundamentally, the 2019 SEIR failed to sufficiently inform the public and decisionmakers about why LM GHG-1 is a lease measure rather than a mitigation measure. In defense of this position, the SEIR stated only that LM GHG-1 could not be a mitigation measure because it was not possible to quantify the measure’s effectiveness. The court found that such an assertion, without a reasoned explanation, is insufficient under CEQA.

The court was also skeptical of the Port’s claim that it quantifying the GHG Fund’s effectiveness was not possible. The court emphasized that the CEQA Guidelines expressly allow for carbon offsets as a form of GHG mitigation when they adhere to specific criteria, including proper evidence and monitoring for fee-based, off-site mitigation efforts. Further, the SEIR included details on China Shipping’s payments to the GHG Fund based on projected excess GHG emissions and the prevailing market value of carbon, suggesting that quantification is possible.

Responses to Comments Suggesting a Third-Party Mitigation Compliance Monitor

Comments on the Draft SEIR requested that the Port appoint an independent third-party monitor to oversee compliance with the SEIR’s mitigation measures. In response, the Final SEIR explained that such a requirement would be beyond the scope of the SEIR and was not required by CEQA. The Court of Appeal upheld this response.

The court explained that the CEQA Guidelines provide that agencies must address significant environmental issues raised in comments, especially when an agency’s position varies from the comments. Here, the Port’s response to the comments requesting an independent mitigation monitor provided a legal rationale for rejecting that proposal, consistent with CEQA. The Port’s response was legally correct in that Port-wide independent oversight would be beyond the SEIR’s purview. CEQA did not require further response on this topic.

The court also observed that although the petitioners framed their argument as challenging the legal sufficiency of the response, their primary concern seemed to be the Port’s choice to monitor its own mitigation compliance. The court noted that, although the Port had historically failed to adequately enforce mitigation at the terminal, the Port’s decision to retain control over mitigation monitoring is allowed under CEQA.

Removal of Mitigation Measure MM AQ-20, Requiring Exclusive Use of Liquefied Natural Gas in Drayage Trucks

The 2008 EIR included mitigation measure MM AQ-20, which mandated a gradual shift away from diesel-powered drayage trucks to liquefied natural gas-powered trucks at the terminal, eventually requiring all trucks to use liquefied natural gas.

The Port retained an environmental consulting firm, Ramboll Environ, to study the feasibility of requiring the use of alternative-technology drayage trucks at container terminals. Ramboll prepared a report that evaluated the viability of imposing an alternative-fuel-only policy at a singular terminal. The report considered various strategies: engaging with trucking companies to exclusively use liquefied natural gas/zero-emission trucks; establishing a terminal-operated drayage service; or denying entry to trucks not powered by liquefied natural gas or zero-emission technologies at the terminal gates. The report concluded that none of these strategies was viable, citing the drayage industry’s structure, the technical challenges associated with liquefied natural gas-powered trucks, and the competitive disadvantage this would impose on a single terminal.

Petitioner SCAQMD argued that the Ramboll report failed to evaluate the economic feasibility of the Port purchasing new liquefied natural gas-powered trucks or promoting their use through subsidies or other financial incentives. The court found this argument mischaracterized the Ramboll report, which had concluded that a terminal-specific mandate for liquefied natural gas-powered trucks was not viable without broader industry-wide changes. The Ramboll report demonstrated that a requirement that one terminal use liquefied natural gas-powered trucks was infeasible, regardless of who would be responsible for purchasing the trucks.

Replacement Measure for Mitigation Measures MM AQ-20.

SCAQMD also argued that the Port violated CEQA by failing to adopt an alternative mitigation measure to Mitigation Measure MM AQ-20 (discussed above). SCAQMD contended that even if liquefied natural gas technology had not advanced since the 2008 EIR, other zero or near-zero emission truck technologies have progressed and have been successfully piloted at the Port. The court found substantial evidence supported the Port’s determination that there are no feasible replacement measures for MM AQ-20.

Firstly, the Ramboll report, which constitutes substantial evidence,  concluded that implementing a drayage truck mitigation measure specific to one terminal, rather than an industry-wide approach, was infeasible. Secondly, the SEIR reviewed ongoing trials of zero and near-zero emission trucks and found significant operational and infrastructural hurdles existed. Finally, the 2017 Clean Air Action Plan developed by the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach found that the majority of zero and near-zero emission technologies required further development to achieve commercial viability. These reports and findings constituted substantial evidence in support of the Port’s conclusion that no feasible replacement measures for MM AQ-20 exist.

SCAQMD criticized the Port for only considering technologies that are already extensively deployed, accusing it of interpreting “feasible” as something achievable immediately rather than within a reasonable future timeframe.  The court disagreed, finding that the SEIR did not impose an “immediacy” criterion for feasible mitigation measures. Instead, the SEIR evaluated the current and future states of the drayage truck industry, including technological progress, operational realities, and economic considerations, particularly the implications of enforcing a truck-type requirement at a single terminal. The Port’s decision, informed by these factors, did not constitute an abuse of discretion.

The Port’s Decision to Reduce Vessel Speed Compliance Target in Mitigation Measure MM AQ-10

Mitigation Measure MM AQ-10 from the 2008 EIR required that, by 2009, 100 percent of ships visiting the China Shipping terminal adhere to the Port’s Vessel Speed Reduction Program (VSRP). Introduced in 2001, the VSRP is a voluntary program to reduce emissions by decreasing ship speeds near the Port. Financial rewards were introduced to the program in 2005 to boost adherence within specific nautical mile zones. The 2019 SEIR concluded that achieving 100 percent compliance with the VRSP was infeasible, mandating instead a compliance target of 95 percent.

The Court of Appeal agreed with SCAQMD that the Port lacked substantial evidence and sufficient reason for modifying the compliance target. The court explained that the SEIR cited operational challenges as the rationale for the change, but failed to support that claim with specific evidence or data. Instead, the SEIR’s claim of infeasibility appeared to be largely based on statements from China Shipping, without substantiation.

In defense of its determination that a 100 percent compliance target is infeasible, the Port cited the 2017 Clean Air Action Plan which aimed for a 95 percent compliance level based on the achievements of the voluntary program. This reasoning, however,  failed to consider the voluntary nature of the VSRP and that existing data did not necessarily indicate the outcomes of a mandatory scheme. The court also observed that the China Shipping terminal had surpassed the 95 percent compliance rate, further undermining the Port’s position.

The court also rejected the Port’s argument that lowering the compliance target from 100 percent to 95 percent would result in minimal environmental benefits. The court observed that the Port’s own figures demonstrated a considerable difference in emissions, especially nitrogen oxides, between the two compliance levels. For this same reason, the court rejected the Port’s argument that the difference between 95 percent compliance and 100 percent compliance would not affect potential health impacts.


The court next considered the petitioners’ claim that the trial court had misapplied CEQA’s remedy provisions. The trial court had held that none of the mitigation measures in the 2019 SEIR was enforceable, a CEQA violation the trial court deemed “profound.” Nonetheless, the trial court only ordered the Port to rescind the SEIR, without ordering the Port to stop terminal operations or set a deadline to redress the CEQA violations.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the petitioners that the trial court misunderstood its remedial authority under Public Resources Code, section 21168.9 (“Section 21168.9”). The court reasoned that subdivision (c) of Section 21168.9 clarifies that courts retain equitable powers to remedy legal violations, albeit without prescribing how agencies should exercise their discretions. Moreover, subdivision (a) of that statute empowers the trial court to mandate measures that ensure compliance with CEQA, such as halting environmentally harmful project activities until regulatory compliance is secured. The trial court misinterpreted Section 21168.9 by not considering these broader corrective options.

The Court of Appeal stressed that the trial court in this case has a variety of interventions at its disposal, such as imposing a strict schedule for a revised SEIR or halting terminal operations until certain mitigation steps are taken. Additionally, the court observed, China Shipping is bound by the lease agreement to adhere to mitigation measures detailed in any officially approved environmental documentation.

The court remanded the case back to the trial court to exercise its discretion to remedy the CEQA violations based on the full remedial authority vested in the trial court under Section 21168.9.

Conclusions and Implications

This case affirms the principle that public agencies are permitted to revise previously adopted mitigation measures if there is substantial evidence demonstrating that the original measures are infeasible. Notably, however, the court rejected the perceived attempt by the Port to circumvent CEQA’s requirements for effective mitigation by categorizing a measure as a “lease measure” rather than a true mitigation measure. Emphasizing substance over labels, the court observed that the SEIR essentially treated the lease measure as a mitigation measures, as evidenced by its repeated assertions that the measure would help reduce and mitigate GHG impacts. The court also stressed the Port’s lack of a convincing rationale for not designating the lease measure as a mitigation measure.

This case also highlights the broad and flexible authority granted to trial courts in deciding on an appropriate remedy for CEQA violations. The court’s decision to send the case back to the trial court for reconsideration of a wider array of remedies underscores the critical role of judicial oversight in CEQA, especially in cases involving substantial environmental impacts from major operations like the Port of Los Angeles.







In a 123-page decision, League to Save Lake Tahoe Mountain Area Preservation Foundation v. County of Placer (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 63, the Third District partially affirmed the trial court’s judgment in two cases granting a petition for writ of mandate, finding that the EIR for the Martis Valley West Parcel Specific Plan (Project) failed to adequately describe the environmental setting of Lake Tahoe regarding water quality, failed to adequately analyze impacts to Lake Tahoe water quality resulting from automobile trips, impermissibly deferred the formulation of mitigation for GHG impacts, failed to analyze proposed mitigation for the Project’s significant and unavoidable traffic impacts on SR 267, and failed to analyze whether renewable energy features could be incorporated into the Project. The Court of Appeal upheld the EIR’s analysis of impacts to forest resources and air quality, including the County’s reliance on the Placer County Air Pollution Control District’s (PCAPCD) thresholds of significance. The court also upheld the County’s decision not to recirculate the Draft EIR and to immediately rezone the subject property out of Timberland Productivity Zone (TPZ). Lastly, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision that the EIR did not adequately analyze emergency evacuation impacts.


Real Party in Interest, Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), owns two undeveloped parcels on either side of SR 267, between Truckee and Lake Tahoe. The West Parcel is southeast of the Northstar Resort and has 1,052 acres. The East Parcel has 6,376 acres.  The existing zoning and land use designation in the Martis Valley Community Plan (MVCP) allows up to 1,360 residential units and 6.6 acres of commercial uses in a 670-acre area of the larger east parcel. Otherwise, both parcels are zoned TPZ and designated as forest in the MVCP. Starting in 2013, SPI and its partners (collectively, Real Parties in Interest or RPI) proposed that the County adopt a specific plan for the two parcels that would amend the MVCP and zoning to move the residential and commercial uses from the East Parcel to the West Parcel, reduce the residential capacity from 1,360 units to 760 units, immediately rezone 662 acres on the West Parcel out of TPZ, and rezone the entire East Parcel as TPZ. Following adoption of the specific plan, the applicants would sell the East Parcel for conservation purposes or place the land in a conservation easement. The effect of the land swap would be to allow development on the West Parcel, adjacent to Northstar and existing residential development, while permanently conserving all 6,376 acres of the East Parcel, connecting some 50,000 acres of open space east of SR 267. Two small areas of both parcels are within the Lake Tahoe Basin, and thus subject to the jurisdiction of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), but neither area would be included in the specific plan.

The County circulated a draft EIR for the Project in 2015. In 2016, the County certified the final EIR, immediately rezoned the 662-acre project area of the West Parcel out of TPZ, rezoned the East Parcel to TPZ, and adopted the specific plan.

Sierra Watch, Mountain Area Preservation, and the League to Save Lake Tahoe (collectively, Sierra Watch) filed a lawsuit challenging the EIR and the County’s finding that immediately rezoning the project area on the West Parcel was consistent with the purposes of the Timberland Productivity Act (TPA). The California Clean Energy Committee (CCEC) filed a separate petition, also challenging the EIR. The trial court issued judgments in April and June 2018, rejecting all the challenges to the EIR, with the exception of the EIR’s analysis of impacts to emergency evacuations, and upholding the County’s findings on the immediate rezone out of TPZ. Sierra Watch and CCEC filed separate appeals, and the County and RPI cross-appealed on the emergency evacuation issue.

Court of Appeal’s Decision

On appeal, Sierra Watch argued that the EIR failed to adequately describe the Lake Tahoe Basin’s existing air and water quality, that the County should have adopted the TRPA’s threshold of significance for vehicle miles traveled (VMT) with respect to basin air and water quality, and that the EIR failed to adequately analyze the impacts of project traffic on air and water quality in the basin. Sierra Watch also challenged the County’s decision not to recirculate the EIR following changes to the analysis of GHG impacts, and argued that the adopted GHG mitigation measure was invalid. Lastly, Sierra Watch argued that the County violated the TPA by failing to make required findings. In their cross-appeal, the County and RPI argued that the EIR’s analysis of impacts to emergency evacuations was adequate, and that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s conclusion that the impacts would be less than significant.

CCEC’s appeal argued that the EIR did not adequately describe existing forest resources or analyze cumulative impacts to forest resources, failed to analyze feasible traffic mitigation measures proposed in comments, failed to disclose significant impacts from widening SR 267, and failed to discuss the use of renewable energy sources to meet Project energy demand. CCEC also argued that the adopted GHG mitigation measure was infeasible and unenforceable.

Lake Tahoe

The Court of Appeal found the County was not legally required to use TRPA’s thresholds of significance for measuring the Project’s impacts because, although the two parcels did include land within TRPA’s jurisdiction, the Project was revised to not include those areas. Instead, the County, as the lead agency, had discretion to rely on TRPA’s thresholds or those of another agency, or use their own thresholds, including thresholds unique to the Project. The court also concluded that, while TRPA had “jurisdiction by law” over resources that could be affected by the Project, and was thus, a “Trustee agency” under CEQA, they were not a “Responsible agency” because they had no permitting authority over the Project.
The court also found that the County did not abuse its discretion in adopting the PCAPCD’s thresholds of significance for the project’s air emissions impacts because, contrary to Sierra Watch’s claims, the PCAPCD’s significance thresholds were adopted to address air and water quality (resulting from air emissions) within the Tahoe Basin. However, the EIR failed to adequately describe the existing water quality of Lake Tahoe, which could be impacted by “crushed abrasives and sediment” from project traffic within the basin. According top the court, the EIR did not include a threshold of significance (though several were discussed in post-EIR responses to comments) for such impacts, even though there was substantial evidence that the project-generated traffic would travel within the basin, which the court found to be an abuse of discretion.


Sierra Watch argued that the revisions to the draft EIR’s GHG analysis included in the Final EIR triggered the need to recirculate. The draft EIR included a tiered analysis of GHG impacts. First, annual Project GHG emissions were calculated and compared to PCAPCD’s numeric threshold of 1,100 MTC2E for residential development. Second, although the draft EIR acknowledged that little, if any, of the Project would be constructed by 2020, the EIR compared a completed Project in 2020 with the GHG reduction measures, including those required by law, in place with a “no action” or “business as usual” scenario to determine the Project’s GHG efficiency, pursuant to the California Air Resources Board’s revised Scoping Plan. The draft EIR concluded that, because the Project would generate GHG emissions substantially greater than the numeric threshold, and because it was uncertain what regulatory GHG measures would be in place after 2020, when the Project was likely to begin operating, the impact was significant and unavoidable.

Before the final EIR was published, however, the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (2015) 62 Cal.4th 204 (Newhall Ranch). Newhall Ranch ruled that an efficiency metric comparing a proposed project to a hypothetical “business as usual” scenario was a permissible way to analyze GHG impacts, but the Scoping Plan’s statewide efficiency threshold required additional evidence and analysis to apply to individual projects, and the EIR in that case did not include the required connection. In response to Newhall Ranch, the final EIR dropped the efficiency analysis, but affirmed the draft EIR’s conclusion that impacts would be significant and unavoidable because the Project would generate emissions exceeding the numeric threshold, and because of the uncertainty around future regulatory GHG reduction measures. The County concluded that, because the significance conclusion did not change, recirculation was not required. The Court agreed recirculation was not required because the final EIR did not show new or substantially more significant effects, and merely clarified or amplified the information provided in the draft EIR.

GHG Mitigation

The court agreed with the appellants that the GHG mitigation measure impermissibly deferred determining the significance of GHG impacts, because the measure required future tentative maps to establish consistency with future efficiency targets adopted in compliance with the Newhall Ranch decision, even though the EIR acknowledged that no such targets existed and may not ever exist. The measure provided a suite of proposed mitigation tools that future maps could use to meet the efficiency targets. The court reasoned that, if no efficiency target consistent with Newhall Ranch became available, mitigation would never be triggered. RPI and the County argued that, if no efficiency targets were available, the 1,100 MTC2E threshold would apply to future maps, but the court found that the language of the measure itself did not include the numeric threshold.

Emergency Evacuations

The court agreed with the County and RPI that the EIR’s analysis of impacts to emergency evacuation plans was adequate and the EIR’s conclusion that impacts would be less than significant was supported by substantial evidence. The court upheld the EIR’s reliance on the questions in Appendix G to the CEQA Guidelines to set a threshold of significance. The EIR acknowledged that adding people and development to the area could exacerbate cumulative impacts to evacuation but concluded that the impact was less than significant because the project would not cut off or modify any evacuation routes and would not prevent an evacuation from occurring or otherwise interfere with the implementation of the County’s evacuation plans. The court found that the conclusion was supported by substantial evidence, including the EIR’s analysis of how long it would take to evacuate the project site, the number of emergency access/evacuation roads included in the project, the requirement that RPI develop a “shelter in place” feature, and the analysis of impacts to fire department response times.

The court acknowledged that evacuation planning involved multiple unknown factors and a host of potential circumstances which made it difficult to predict how an evacuation might play out or how a project could impact such an evacuation. The court reasoned that because the County had discretion as the lead agency to decide how to analyze an impact, the court would defer to the County’s methodology decision provided it was reasonable and supported by substantial evidence. The court found that it was. The court concluded that many of Sierra Watch’s challenges to the EIR’s analysis amounted to requests for further analysis, additional modeling, and speculative hypothetical scenarios. The court cited Guidelines sections 15145 and 15151 for the propositions that the EIR need not speculate and need not be exhaustive. While some of the evidence, relating to fire prevention and fire department response times, did not directly relate to emergency evacuation planning, the evidence indirectly supported the County’s conclusions by demonstrating that the project was reducing the likelihood of wildfire on the site and reducing the need for an evacuation.

Sierra Watch also argued that the EIR was internally inconsistent because the traffic analysis reached the opposite conclusion of the emergency evacuation analysis regarding project traffic on SR 267. The court found that the EIR’s conclusion that project generated traffic would have a significant impact on vehicle delay was not inconsistent with the conclusion that project generated traffic would not substantially interfere with emergency evacuation plans. The court reasoned that the two analyses focused on different types of impacts, with time (as measured by vehicle delay) being the focus of the traffic analysis and public safety being the focus of the emergency evacuation analysis.

Forest Resources

The court upheld the EIR’s conclusions that cumulative impacts to forest resources were less than significant. The EIR discussed the County’s 1994 General Plan EIR’s analysis of impacts to forest resources based on projected growth and development in the County and concluded that the Project’s impacts were consistent with and would not exceed the impacts disclosed in 1994 General Plan EIR. The Final EIR concluded that analyzing climate-related forest impacts, such as drought, wildfire, and tree mortality cause by bark beetles, would be speculative, and the court agreed. The court concluded that climate-driven tree mortality was not within the scope of a CEQA cumulative impacts analysis, which required the County to analyze impacts from the Project combined with past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future projects. Tree mortality is not a “project” under CEQA. The court acknowledged that climate-caused tree mortality could be exacerbated by a project, but such impacts would be best analyzed as part of the climate change and GHG analysis. The court concluded that aspect of the GHG analysis was not challenged in this case.

Traffic Mitigation

The EIR concluded that the Project’s traffic impacts on SR 267, measured in terms of delay and using the level of service (LOS) metric, would be significant and unavoidable. The EIR reached this conclusion in part because while the California Department of Transportation had plans to widen SR 267 from two to four lanes, the plan did not cover the portion of SR 267 within the Tahoe Basin, and it was uncertain when the widening would occur. Several commenters suggested that the EIR analyze transportation demand management (TDM) options to reduce traffic on SR 267. The EIR included similar measures for the Project’s impact on public transit but did not analyze whether TDM measures could further reduce the significant traffic impacts. The court, without acknowledging previous rulings by the Third District Court of Appeal finding LOS impacts to be moot given the Legislature’s directive that vehicle delay is not a significant environmental impact, ruled that the EIR failed to analyze facially feasible mitigation proposed in comments and therefore violated CEQA. The Court also found that, while the EIR did not analyze the impacts of widening SR 267, that lack of analysis was not prejudicial error because widening SR 267 was previously approved by the County in the MVCP, which concluded at the time that impacts of such a project would be analyzed in a separate EIR once the improvements were designed.

Energy Resources

Lastly, the court found fault in the EIR’s analysis of impacts to energy resources. The EIR concluded that the Project’s energy consumption impacts would be less than significant because the Project would not result in “wasteful, inefficient, or unnecessary use of energy, or wasteful use of energy resources.” The court, however, ruled that the EIR was required to analyze the Project’s potential use of renewable energy both in determining whether the Project may have a significant impact and how to mitigate that impact. Citing California Clean Energy Com. v. City of Woodland (2014) 225 Cal.App.4th 173, 209, the court concluded that the requirement to analyze renewable energy as part of a project’s impact analysis was a procedural requirement of CEQA, which the EIR failed to comply with.

– Nathan George

*RMM Attorneys Whit Manley, Chip Wilkins, and Nate George served as counsel to Real Parties in Interest in the above litigation.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Finds San Diego County Climate Action Plan and Supplemental EIR Inadequate Under CEQA

On June 12, 2020, the Fourth District Court Appeal issued a decision in Golden Door Properties, LLC v. County of San Diego (2020) 50 Cal.App.5th 467 invalidating San Diego County’s approval of a Climate Action Plan and related Guidelines for Determining Significance of Climate Change, and holding that the County’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Report failed to comply with CEQA. In what is now the third published decision dealing with San Diego County’s 2011 general plan update process, the Fourth District panel largely affirmed the trial court’s judgment in the three consolidated cases challenging the County’s adoption of the CAP and SEIR, including with respect to the primary issue in the case—whether the County’s GHG mitigation measure allowing for the purchase of out-of-County carbon offset credits complied with CEQA. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment on some issues, however, finding the CAP to be sufficiently consistent with the County’s general plan update and the County’s responses to comments on the SEIR adequate under CEQA.


In 2011, San Diego County prepared a Program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) and adopted a general plan update (GPU) for the unincorporated areas of the County. In order to mitigate GHG emissions that would result from buildout of the general plan update to a level consistent with State-mandated GHG emissions reductions targets, the PEIR included a mitigation measure requiring that the County prepare a climate action plan (CAP). The County began preparing the CAP following the adoption of the GPU, which generally entailed establishing a baseline inventory of known and foreseeable GHG emissions in the County and developing 26 GHG emissions reduction measures for future development projects to implement. The County also prepared a checklist and Guidelines for Determining the Significance of GHG Emissions so that future projects’ consistency with the CAP could be assessed as part of the CEQA process.

In 2018, in order to evaluate the environmental impacts of implementing the CAP, the County prepared a Supplemental EIR (SEIR). The SEIR acknowledged that more than 20 projects proposing general plan amendments were in-process but not approved at the time the SEIR was prepared, and that such projects could result in significant GHG emissions not accounted for in the CAP. To mitigate these potentially significant GHG emissions, the County devised a mitigation measure, M-GHG-1, requiring that any projects that would increase the density or intensity of land use above what is permitted under the GPU to mitigate emissions to a level consistent with the CAP assumptions (i.e., net zero or no new emissions). Under M-GHG-1, mitigation of GHG-emissions was to be accomplished first by incorporating all feasible onsite design features, such as measures to prioritize transit, biking, and walking. Then, in the event project design features were unavailable or insufficient to fully mitigate the additional GHG emissions, M-GHG-1 allowed for the use of offsite mitigation, including the purchase of carbon offset credits, which could be obtained from certain qualifying registries relying on offsets located virtually anywhere in the world.

Following the County’s adoption of the SEIR, CAP, and related Guidelines for Determining the Significance of GHG Emissions, Sierra Club and Golden Door Properties filed separate petitions for a writ of mandate challenging the County’s approvals, alleging multiple violations arising under CEQA and Planning and Zoning Law. After consolidating the two actions (along with a third, previously-stayed case), the trial court granted a peremptory writ of mandate, ordering the County to set aside its approvals. The trial court determined that the CAP was inconsistent with the General Plan, and that mitigation measure M-GHG-1’s reliance on out-of-County carbon offsets violated CEQA. The trial court also determined that the SEIR violated CEQA by inadequately analyzing cumulative impacts, impacts to energy and environmental justice, and project alternatives, and that the County failed to adequately respond to comments on the draft SEIR.

Following the entry of judgment and issuance of the writ, the County appealed.

Court of Appeal

While the appellate court’s 123-page decision addresses a host of legal issues, the primary issue on appeal was whether the SEIR mitigation measure M-GHG-1 violated CEQA’s requirements for mitigation due to the standards imposed, or lack thereof, for the use of out-of-County offsets to mitigate GHG emissions in projects requiring a general plan amendment. Citing CEQA Guidelines section 15126.4, subdivision (c)(3), the court explained that while it is well-established that the use of offsets can be part of a GHG mitigation strategy, the use of such offsets must be “properly restricted” with “verified offsets” that ensure GHG reductions in fact occur. Here, the appellate court held, M-GHG-1 failed to satisfy CEQA’s requirements for adequate GHG mitigation.

Relying heavily on the standards governing the State Cap-and-Trade Program and related California Air Resources Board regulations, the court of appeal agreed with the trial court that the County’s GHG mitigation measure M-GHG-1 lacked sufficient performance standards to ensure the offsets relied on are “real, permanent, verifiable, and enforceable.” Specifically, the court noted that while M-GHG-1 contained some standards governing the entities through which offsets may be purchased, namely, a CARB-approved registry or “any other reputable registry or entity that issues carbon offsets consistent with … [Health and Safety Code] section 38562 [subdivision] (d)(1),” M-GHG-1 did not include any standards or protocols that such qualifying registries must implement to ensure the validity of the offset credits claimed. In the absence of such standards or safeguards, the court found that M-GHG-1 failed to adequately ensure offsets are real, additional, and enforceable and for that reason was inadequate under CEQA.

In addition to the lack of sufficient standards for out-of-County carbon offsets, the court of appeal also held that M-GHG-1 violated CEQA as the measure improperly deferred mitigation. Under M-GHG-1, the County planning director was afforded discretion to approve the use of particular offsets, including determinations such as whether the issuing entity is “reputable” and whether there are no other “financially feasible” offsets “available” in a closer location. On this issue, the court explained that while CEQA allows the specific details of a mitigation measure to be developed after project approval where it is impractical or otherwise infeasible to do so during the environmental review process, in such instances that agency must (1) commit itself to the mitigation, (2) adopt specific performance standards the mitigation will achieve, and (3) identifies the type(s) of potential action(s) that can feasibly achieve that performance standard and that will be considered, analyzed, and potentially incorporated in the mitigation measure.n this case, the court held that M-GHG-1 failed to meet these requirements.

In holding M-GHG-1 violated CEQA as an improper deferral of mitigation, the court of appeal emphasized that M-GHG-1 contained no objective standards for the director to apply in determining whether offsets originating in foreign countries are real, permanent, verifiable, enforceable, and additional. As the court explained, M-GHG-1 entrusted the planning director with making several determinations such as whether the proposed offset registry is “reputable” or whether other offsets are “financially feasible,” however, the measure lacked objective criteria to govern such determinations. Further, the court held that because M-GHG-1 failed to comply with CEQA, the County’s CAP was also inadequate, because, to the extent the CAP assumed that in-process and future projects requiring a general plan amendment would not result in significant GHG impacts based on compliance with M-GHG-1, the County’s finding was not supported by substantial evidence.

In addition to the court’s lengthy analysis of M-GHG-1, the court of appeal’s decision also considered the plaintiff’s arguments that the County’s SEIR failed to comply with CEQA on several other grounds. The appellate court largely agreed with the plaintiffs and affirmed the trial court’s decision, including finding that the SEIR’s cumulative impact analysis was inadequate by failing to analyze impacts other than GHG emissions; that the County’s finding of consistency with the SANDAG Regional Transportation Plan was not supported by substantial evidence; and that the County’s alternatives analysis was inadequate for failing to consider a project alternative aimed at reducing vehicle miles traveled or “VMT”. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment on two issues, however, finding the County’s determination the CAP was consistent with the general plan update was adequately supported under the highly deferential standard of review and that the County’s responses to comments on the draft SEIR were sufficient under CEQA.