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In Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority v. City of Whittier 2015 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3859, the Second District Court of Appeal reiterated that a “project” under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is not each individual governmental approval, but rather the whole of an action.

The facts leading up to the case began when the City of Whittier (City) purchased over 1,000 acres of undeveloped land, including land formerly owned by Chevron U.S.A. Inc. (Chevron) and covered in part by a conservation easement, using a grant from the Los Angeles County Regional Park and Open Space District (District). Upon purchase of the land, the City and the District entered into a Project Agreement (Agreement) requiring the City to seek the District’s approval of any proposed leases on the land. Thereafter, after certifying an EIR, the City entered into a lease with Matrix Oil Corporation for the drilling and production of oil on seven acres of the protected land (Project), yet the City did not first obtain approval from the District.

Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority sued the District and the City, but its suit was settled and its claims were dismissed.  The District filed a cross-complaint against the City, alleging among other causes of action, that the City failed to comply with CEQA when it entered an Amendment and Partial Release of Declaration and Easement of Restricted Use with Chevron to make clear that the existing conservation easement did not prohibit the Project (Chevron Release).

With respect to the District’s CEQA claim, the District argued that the City was required to conduct environmental review of its decision to approve the “Chevron Release.”  The court explained that while approval of the “Chevron Release,” viewed in isolation, could potentially result in environmental impacts, the Release was not a distinct project on its own but rather one part of the oil drilling project as a whole that previously underwent CEQA review.  A “project” under CEQA means “the whole of the action,” not “each separate governmental approval.”  Thus, since the “Chevron Release” was one governmental approval in the midst of a larger project, the City was not required to conduct an environmental review of its approval. Furthermore, the court found that any possible environmental impacts of the “Chevron Release” were fully considered in the oil drilling project’s EIR.

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