In Friends of Oroville v. City of Oroville, ___Cal.App.4th ___ (Aug. 19, 2013, Case No. C070448), the Third District Court of Appeal ruled that the City of Oroville misapplied the threshold-of significance standard in Assembly Bill 32 (the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006) when it approved an EIR for a new Wal-Mart Supercenter. In the published portion of the opinion, the court found that the city identified the proper significance threshold for the Wal-Mart project’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But the court held that the city failed to apply the standard properly because it a) applied a “meaningless” number to determine insignificant impact and b) failed to ascertain the existing GHG emissions for the project. The case provides clear guidance for an agency making a determination under CEQA of GHG emissions impacts.
The project involved the relocation and expansion of an existing Wal-Mart store. At the time the EIR was developed, neither the city nor the Butte County Air Quality Management District had adopted a plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that would be applicable to the project. Therefore, the city adopted a standard that asked whether the project would “significantly hinder or delay” California’s ability to meet the reduction targets in Assembly Bill 32, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide to 1990 levels by the year 2020. The EIR noted that the State Air Resources Board’s Scoping Plan for achieving that goal calls for cutting approximately 30 percent from “business-as-usual” emission levels projected for 2020. The court found this standard proper.
The city’s error came when it compared the project’s estimated carbon dioxide emissions at build-out with the entire state of California’s 2004 GHG emissions. The calculation showed the project’s emissions constituted just 0.003 percent of the state’s total emissions. The EIR concluded the impact was less than significant because it would not significantly hinder or delay California’s ability to meet the GHG reduction targets in Assembly Bill 32. In a sharp rebuke, the court called the comparison “meaningless” and “worse than apples to oranges” because “[o]f course, one store’s GHG emissions will pale in comparison to those of the world’s eighth largest economy.”
The court pointed to Citizens for Responsible Equitable Environmental Development v. City of Chula Vista (2011) 197 Cal.App.4th 327, for the proper application of the standard. According to the court, the relevant question is whether a project’s emissions should be considered significant “in light of the threshold-of significance standard of Assembly Bill 32, which seeks to cut about 30 percent from business-as-usual emission levels projected for 2020 [emphasis added].”
The court also found the EIR deficient because it failed to ascertain or estimate the effect of the project’s mitigation measures on GHG emissions. The court stated: “Without these determinations, ascertaining whether AB 32’s target reductions are being met is difficult if not futile.” In its disposition, the court reversed the trial court’s denial for writ of mandate and remanded with directions to grant the petition as to the issue of greenhouse gas emissions and payment of transportation-related fees.
[written by Deb Kollars]