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CEQA Updates

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

Posts Tagged ‘Environmental impact’


California Supreme Court Holds Federal Regulation of State Owned Rail Lines Does Not Preempt CEQA

Monday, August 14th, 2017

In Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Rail Road Authority, 2017 Cal. LEXIS 5650, the California Supreme Court addressed whether the federal Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA) preempts the application of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for a California railroad project governed by the state’s North Coast Rail Authority (NCRA) and operated by a privately leased entity.

NCRA was sued under CEQA for inadequacies in its rail line project EIR. NCRA argued that the line was subject to federal ICCTA regulation instead of CEQA, removed the matter to the Ninth Circuit, and rescinded its EIR. The federal court remanded the matter to state court. The trial court held that the ICCTA preempted CEQA, and the First Appellate District affirmed. In December of 2014, the California Supreme Court granted petitioners’ petition for review as it related to the preemption issue.

The Court examined the ICCTA’s statutory construction and historical background, finding that although the ICCTA contains an express preemption provision and contemplates a unified national rail system, it was intended to combat rail monopolies while minimizing the need for federal regulatory control. The ICCTA expressly allows private rail owners to govern themselves internally via market-based self-correction and corporate bylaws, as long as those internal governances do not conflict with the ICCTA or other federal regulatory agencies. The Court concluded that this freedom to govern a private rail company translates to the freedom to govern state-controlled rail companies as well.

The Court held that the federal interest in railroads does not entirely sweep away the exercise of a state’s regulatory police powers when such regulation merely implicates rail transport, and that it does not follow that any and all state regulations touching on powers that may be federally regulated are preempted. The Court determined that application of CEQA to a public entity charged with developing state property is not a classic regulatory behavior, especially when there is no encroachment on the regulatory domain of the Surface Transportation Board or inconsistency with the ICCTA. Rather, application of CEQA constitutes self-governance on the part of a sovereign state. The Court presumed that Congress did not intend to preempt a state’s adoption and use of the tools of self-governance, or to leave the state without any means of establishing the basic principles under which it will undertake significant capital expenditures. The Court further concluded that ICCTA’s preemption of CEQA would be improper because it would allow the state to start and fund a rail line, but restrict how work is done on the line, unlike private owners.

The Court, relying on analyses of Gregory v. Ashcroft (1991) 501 U.S. 452, Garcia v. San Antonio Metro. Transit Auth. (1985) 469 U.S. 528, and Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League (2004) 541 U.S. 125, held that when interpreting Congressional legislation, there must be unmistakably clear language to establish an intrusive exercise of Congress’ commerce clause powers against a state. The Court explained that when there is the possibility of preemption, the law should be presumed as preserving a State’s chosen disposition of its own power, in the absence of a clear and plain statement from the legislature. The Court utilized the presumption argument to support the view that CEQA is not preempted in this case, and concluded that preemption would interpose improper federal authority between a State and its municipal subdivisions. Particularly, the Court found that it would be improper to preempt the state’s ability to dictate how its own subdivision addresses environmental concerns caused by the state’s own railroad business.

Examining the market participant doctrine, the Court found that the while the doctrine ordinarily is used to analyze preemption when a state interacts with private parties as a participant in a private marketplace for goods, labor, or services, it does not address a state’s ability to govern its own governmental subsidiary. Nevertheless, the Court continued its analysis of the doctrine, and found that because states operating in a private marketplace are subject to the same burdens imposed by Congress on private owners, courts will presume that Congress would afford states, as owners, the same freedoms as private parties. The Court held that the state’s application of CEQA to NCRA’s proceedings can be analogized to a private corporation enforcing its bylaws.

The Court concluded that Congress did not intend to intrude upon state self-governance in this context. The Court found that affirming preemption would commit the state to a one-way ratchet—able to enter the rail business, but unable to require anything of the subordinate agency it set up to carry out the state’s rail initiative.

The Court was careful to establish that CEQA actions might cross the line into preempted regulation if the review process imposes unreasonable burdens outside the particular market in which the state is the owner and developer of a railroad enterprise. The Court also acknowledged that its holding does not mean that the ICCTA has no power to govern state-owned rail lines. State-owned rail lines, like private ones, clearly must comply with STB and ICCTA, and state regulation of rail carriers is preempted by these provisions.

Key Point:

The California Supreme Court found that Congress did not pen the ICCTA to infringe upon state self-governance in a manner dissimilar from private railway owners. Preempting the state’s ability to adopt laws governing its own development schemes would leave the state without the tools necessary to govern its own subdivision. This preemption would deprive the state of the ability to make decisions to carry out the goals the state embraced concerning development projects, including undertaking environmental mitigation or deciding not to undertake a project at all because of its environmental hazards. Although CEQA may be preempted by federal law when it imposes unreasonable burdens on rail line owners, when addressing the competing interests surrounding governance over NCRA’s contested railway, enforcing environmental procedures which California has imposed on itself does not constitute grounds for ICCTA preemption.

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.

California Supreme Court Grants Review of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City Of San Diego

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

On January 11, 2017, the California Supreme Court unanimously granted review of the Fourth Appellate District’s published opinion, Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of San Diego (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 103.

In granting review, the Court identified the following issues:

  1. Is the enactment of a zoning ordinance categorically a “project” within the meaning of the California Environmental Quality Act (Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq.)?
  2. Is the enactment of a zoning ordinance allowing the operation of medical marijuana cooperatives in certain areas the type of activity that may cause a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change to the environment?

The Fourth District held that the enactment and amendment of the zoning ordinance did not have the potential for resulting in “a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment,” and was thus not a project. (4 Cal.App.5th 103). More specifically, the court ruled that the impacts alleged by appellants concerning increased travel, cultivation, and development did not create a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment because these allegations were too speculative. (4 Cal.App.5th 103, 119-124).