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.
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.