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.
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.