Thomas Law Blog

CEQA Updates

Keeping You Up-to-Date on the California Environmental Quality Act

Posts from July, 2017


PRESIDENT TRUMP EXECUTIVE ORDER AIMS AT REVISING EPA WATERS OF THE UNITED STATES (WOTUS) RULE

Monday, July 24th, 2017

On February 28, 2017, President Trump singed an executive order (“Order”) intended to roll back a rule promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) (collectively “Agencies”) under the Clean Water Act (CWA), known as the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule (“Rule”). Noting that EPA can regulate “navigable waters,” waters that truly affect interstate commerce, the President announced that the Order would direct EPA to take action, paving the way for the elimination of this “very destructive and horrible rule.”

On March 6, 2017, the Agencies published in the Federal Register a Notice of Intent to review and rescind or revise the Rule in response to the Order. The Rule, which was issued under the Obama administration and became effective on August 28, 2015, defines “waters of the United States” to clarify CWA jurisdiction based on science and several U.S. Supreme Court cases. These cases addressed the federal government’s jurisdiction over activities affecting the wetlands, rivers, and streams that fed into “navigable waters,” which are defined as “waters of the U.S.” and regulated under CWA.

After the Rule was issued in 2015, numerous states, farmers, and industry groups filed lawsuits to enjoin the Rule, claiming that the Rule would dramatically expand the federal agencies’ regulatory jurisdiction. On October 9, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in In re: EPA, 803 F.3d 804 (6th Cir. 2015), stayed the Rule nationwide, pending the court’s resolution of an issue related to the court’s jurisdiction over the case.

The Order directs the Agencies to initiate the process of rescinding or revising the Rule. The Order first directs the Agencies to review the Rule for consistency with the policy of keeping the Nation’s navigable waters free from pollution and at the same time promoting economic growth and minimizing regulatory uncertainty. Then, it directs the Agencies to publish for notice and comment a proposed rule rescinding or revising the Rule.

In addition, the Order also directs the Agencies and the heads of all executive departments and agencies to review all orders, rules, regulations, guidelines, or policies implementing or enforcing the Rule, and rescind or revise them to reflect any changes made to the Rule. Further, the Order requires that the Agencies take appropriate action concerning any litigation before the federal courts.

Finally, the Order requires that the Agencies interpret the term “navigable waters” in CWA in a manner consistent with Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006). The opinion, in which Justices Roberts, Thomas, and Alito joined, interpreted the term “waters of the U.S.” as “relatively permanent, standing or flowing” bodies of water “connected to traditional interstate navigable waters” as well as wetlands with a “continuous surface connection” with such waters. The plurality seemed to support narrower CWA jurisdiction than Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion in Rapano, based on which the Rule was developed. Justice Kennedy’s opinion suggested that the term “waters of the U.S.” encompasses wetlands that possess a “significant nexus” to navigable waters.

Given the Rule’s extensive nationwide impact, any revision to the Rule will likely be challenged in court by stakeholders. Any change to the Rule requires the Agencies to comply with the notice and comment requirements under the federal Administrative Procedures Act. Stakeholders affected by the revision to the Rule should participate in the forthcoming notice and comment procedures. Thomas Law Group will closely monitor the notice and comment procedures associated with the Order.

SUPREME COURT HOLDS THAT EIRS MUST ANALYZE IMPACTS TO ESHA

Monday, July 24th, 2017

In Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach, (2017) 2 Cal.5th 918, the California Supreme Court unanimously held that the City’s EIR prepared for the Newport Banning Ranch (NBR) project was inadequate, finding that it failed to identify potential “environmentally sensitive habit areas” (ESHAs) under the California Coastal Act (“Act”) and analyze the project’s impacts to those areas.

The Banning Ranch site is an undeveloped, 400-acre plot of land containing oil field facilities and wildlife habitat. The project site, located in the City’s “sphere of influence,” falls in the “coastal zone” under the Act. NBR proposed to develop the site with up to 1,375 residential units, 75,000 square feet of retail, and 75 hotel rooms.

After the City announced in its notice of preparation that the project site included areas that might be defined as ESHAs, numerous public comments were submitted urging the City to discuss potential ESHAs in the EIR. The City refused to do so, contending that it had no legal authority to determine if the areas were ESHA, despite the fact that it knew that the California Coastal Commission (“Commission”) staff had preliminarily determined that the project site contained ESHAs.

In July 2012, the City certified the FEIR and approved the NBR project master plan. Subsequently, Banning Ranch Conservancy (BRC) challenged the project approval, raising two issues. First, BRC claimed that the EIR failed to identify areas that might qualify as ESHAs and account for those areas in its analysis of project alternatives and mitigation measures. Second, BRC contended that the City violated its obligation under the general plan to work with the Commission to identify wetlands and habitats to be protected from development.

 

The trial court rejected BRC’s CEQA claim, but found that the City had not complied with their general plan obligations. The Fourth Appellate District affirmed on the CEQA issue, but reversed on the trial court’s general plan findings because the general plan did not require the City to work with the Commission before project approval.

Reversing the Fourth Appellate District’s holding related to BRC’s CEQA claim, the Supreme Court held that CEQA requires an EIR to identify areas that might qualify as ESHAs. Further, rejecting the City’s argument that CEQA imposes no duty to consider the Act’s ESHA requirements, the Court noted that the lead agency should integrate CEQA review with its project approval process. In addition, the Court held that an EIR must lay out any competing views put forward by the lead agency and other interested agencies. Finally, the Court held that it did not need to address the general plan issue because BRC was found to be entitled to relief on its CEQA claims.

Key Point:

The lead agency must identify a potential ESHA through consultation and discuss their ramifications for mitigation measures and project alternatives in the EIR when there is credible evidence that an ESHA might be present on the project site. The Court provided that whether an EIR has omitted “essential information” is a procedural question subject to de novo review, without clarifying exactly what is deemed “essential information” required to be analyzed under CEQA. Thus, the Court’s holding in this case raises a question of whether an EIR must address other similar statutory schemes relevant to the project, such as the California Fish and Game Code, the California and federal Endangered Species Acts, the federal Clean Water Act, and other statutory requirements administered by the responsible, trustee, or interested agency.

THIRD APPELLATE DISTRICT UPHOLDS CARB’S CAP-AND-TRADE PROGRAM

Monday, July 24th, 2017

In California Chamber of Commerce, et al., v. State Air Resources Board, et al. (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 604, the Third Appellate District affirmed the trial court and rejected challenges to a cap-and-trade program developed by the State Air Resources Board (“CARB”) under the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (“AB 32”).

The program imposes a “cap” on the total amount of GHG emissions from regulated entities, which mostly consist of large GHG emitters. CARB lowers the cap over time to reduce the total emissions and issues allowances, the total value of which is equal to the amount of the cap.

Regulated entities receive these allowances – either through auction, from CARB for free, or a combination of both – or purchase “emission offsets,” credits generated from voluntary emission reductions made outside the capped entities, and surrender an allowance for each ton of emissions they release. If a regulated entity does not need all of the allowances it has in a given period, it may bank them to surrender later or sell them to another registered party. Non-covered entities may buy allowances, either to speculate, or to retire them and reduce emissions.

Business groups filed the suit, arguing that the auction sales exceeded CARB’s authority under AB 32, and that the revenue generated by the auction sales amounted to a tax subject to Proposition 13, which requires any new tax to be passed by a supermajority vote of each house of the state legislature.

First, the court held that CARB did not exceed its authority in designing the cap-and-trade auction program because the legislature had given broad discretion to CARB to design a system including an auction style, market-based mechanism for reducing GHG. The court noted that even if AB 32 had not authorized CARB to adopt the auction program, the legislature ratified it in 2012 through passage of four bills specifying how auction proceeds would be used to effectuate AB 32.

Second, the court held that the revenue generated by the auction sales was not a tax subject to Proposition 13, based on what the court deemed as two “hallmarks” of a tax: (1) it is compulsory; and (2) it does not grant any special benefit to the payer. The court found that participation in the program was voluntary. According to the court, this is because an entity would not have to obtain extra allowances or offset credits unless it chooses to pollute beyond the level of allowances it receives from CARB for free. The court also found that the allowance credits, unlike taxes, would grant benefits to the payers as they were valuable commodities tradable between private parties.

Finally, the court held that the test used to determine whether regulatory fees were taxes in Sinclair Paint Company v. State Board Of Equalization (1997) 15 Cal.4th 866 (Sinclair Paint), which was applied by the trial court, did not control this case. The court explained that the auction system that set up a revenue generating measure at hand was entirely different than a regulatory fee.

In a 13-page dissent, Justice Hull agreed that CARB did not exceed its authority under AB 32, but argued that the cap-and-trade auction program was compulsory and a tax, because covered entities currently in California would be compelled to buy allowances if they were to remain in California. Justice Hull also questioned the majority’s characterization of the auction credits, noting that the value of the auction credits would be ephemeral, given that the state could at its sole discretion limit or terminate them. 

Key Point:

The new test set by the court for assessing whether the cap-and-trade auction program is a tax is far from clear. The majority and Justice Hull disagreed on what “compulsory” meant under the test. On June 28, 2017, the California Supreme Court denied the petitions for review of the Third Appellate District’s decision.

PROPER CEQA BASELINE FOR A PROJECT NORMALLY IS THE CONDITIONS EXISTING WHEN THE ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW OF THE PROJECT COMMENCES

Monday, July 24th, 2017

In Poet v. State Air Resources Board (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th 52, the Fifth Appellate District held that the Air Resources Board (ARB) violated several procedural requirements imposed by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the California Administrative Procedure Act (APA) through noncompliance with a previous writ compelling the agency to address its NOx emissions from biodiesel in accordance with the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 and its subsequent low carbon fuel standards (LCFS).

Upon the adoption of the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which sought to reduce greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020, ARB adopted LCFS regulations. ARB sought to adhere to these LCFS regulations and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by promoting the use of biodiesel as a substitution or blend with petroleum-based diesel fuel. However, ARB failed to analyze potential increases in the emission of NOx resulting from increased biodiesel use, and the possibility of unmitigated adverse environmental consequences of promoting the alternative fuel. In the prior CEQA litigation, Poet I, the trial court issued a writ of mandate directing that:

“ARB shall address whether the project will have a significant adverse effect on the environment as a result of increased NOx emissions, make findings (supported by substantial evidence) regarding the potential adverse environmental effect of increased NOx emissions, and adopt mitigation measures in the event the environmental effects are found to be significant.”

In addressing the writ, ARB produced a set of findings and statement of overriding considerations and adopted the 2015 modified version of the LCFS regulations. The mandated environmental analysis found that while use of biodiesel may increase NOx emissions in some engines, depending on feedstock and blend level, that the total NOx emissions from biodiesel would decline from the 2014 baseline level under the proposed LCFS and alternative diesel fuel (ADF) standards. The study further concluded that the use of biodiesel was consistent with the proposed ADF and would not constitute a significant adverse impact to air quality.

In its environmental analysis, ARB adopted 2014 NOx emissions data as the baseline to conduct its study, citing that because biodiesel had only recently become incentivized in 2009 (and was used in blends with petroleum-based oils with much less frequency at that time), that biodiesel NOx emissions in 2009 were minimal and improper to use as the baseline. ARB defended its use of the 2014 data, citing that use of earlier data would be misleading, was not required by law, and was not required by the writ issued in Poet I.

In November 2015, ARB filed its return to the February 2014 writ. POET challenged the return arguing that ARB failed to consider the original LCFS regulation, and that it was inappropriate to use the 2014 baseline in its environmental analysis, which allegedly allowed ARB to avoid acknowledging 2010-2015 NOx emission increases caused by the original LCFS regulations. Additionally, POET criticized ARB for skewing analysis of the impact of NOx emissions by comparing predicted future emissions to a baseline made higher by the original LCFS regulations. Additionally, ARB objected to the return on the grounds that it violated the third paragraph of the writ by assuming that the effect of the original LCFS regulation was not an environmental impact attributable to the project as a whole.

In January 2016, the trial court filed an order discharging the 2014 writ, and found ARB satisfactorily responded to the writ. Upon appeal, the appellate court reversed this discharge, finding that while ARB addressed NOx emissions from biodiesel pursuant to the third paragraph of the 2014 writ, it misconstrued the term “project” and erroneously determined the original LCFS regulations were not part of the “project.”

The appellate court held that ARB’s misinterpretation of the term “project” was not objectively reasonable, that the remedial actions taken in response to the writ of mandate did not appear to be a sincere attempt to provide the public and decision makers with the information required by CEQA. Further, the court held that the baseline for a primary environmental analysis under CEQA must ordinarily be the actually existing physical conditions, rather than hypothetical conditions that could have existed under applicable permits and regulations, and held that the correct baseline would be the data from the environmental conditions before the 2009 LCFS regulations were instated.

The appellate court concluded that most of ARB’s corrective action in response to the February 2014 writ satisfied a subjective good faith standard, but the part of ARB’s corrective action addressing NOx emissions from biodiesel did not. Further, the court held that since 2009, ARB has been in violation of CEQA because its environmental disclosure documents have not provided the public with statutorily required information about the project’s NOx emissions. As a result, the court found that ARB’s corrective action taken in reliance on those environmental disclosure documents did not comply with CEQA.

Subsequently, the order discharging the 2014 peremptory writ of mandate was reversed. The superior court was directed to vacate the previous order and enter a new order stating that ARB’s return did not demonstrate compliance with the third paragraph of the peremptory writ of mandate.

In its discussion of remedial action, the appellate court severed the ADF regulations and the 2015 LCFS regulation, citing that the ADF regulations were not tainted by the continuing CEQA violations. Further, the court found that suspending the diesel provisions of the LCFS regulations would result in adverse environmental impacts due to the increased emissions of greenhouse gases, and elected to leave the LCFS regulations in place, deeming it would provide more protection for the environment than suspending their operation pending ARB’s compliance with CEQA; citing that the possibility that the use of biodiesel during the interim would produce more NOx emissions (than the petroleum-based diesel it replaces) does not justify nullifying all LCFS regulation while waiting for proper compliance with the CEQA.

Key Point:

Where a proposed project commences during CEQA litigation, if a writ of mandate is issued that directs the lead agency to conduct further CEQA review, then baseline conditions on remand normally should be treated as the environmental conditions before the original project was approved.