In an opinion filed on December 29, 2020, the First Appellate District in Santa Clara Valley Water District v. San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board upheld a Responsible Agency’s imposition of additional mitigation more than a year after it had issued an initial approval for the project. Although the court was careful to say that it was addressing “unique circumstances” that would “seldom arise,” the decision is potentially problematic for project proponents, and especially for public agencies trying to pursue necessary public-infrastructure projects.
Last month, the Second Appellate District upheld the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s (“Air District”) Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”), which the Air District prepared to analyze the environmental impacts of a refinery project that was intended to increase compliance and help reduce air pollution. Communities for a Better Environment v. So. Coast Air Quality Mgmt. Dist., Case No. B294732 (Apr. 7, 2020). The project applicant owns and operates two adjacent oil refining facilities in Southern California, and sought to improve the integration of both facilities to allow flexibility in product outputs, which also increased the refinery’s compliance with air regulations, and thus helped reduce air pollutants. As explained in greater detail below, the decision is particularly noteworthy because the court appears to have expanded the “baseline” analysis tied to air emissions, which is used to measure pre-project vs. post-project impacts to the existing environment.
The Air District’s review of the underlying project took three years and the Air District’s Draft EIR was the subject of over 2,000 public comments, which included comments totaling 1,112 pages from the plaintiff that later challenged the project. Significantly, 1,798 comments or 85% supported the project—likely because the EIR found that the main environmental impact of the project would be to reduce air pollution; and the Air District’s Final EIR was lengthy and robust, containing 6,075 pages of public comments alone.
On Tuesday, February 25, 2020, the Fifth Appellate District invalidated Kern County’s 2015 Oil and Gas Ordinance (the “Ordinance”), which was intended to streamline the permitting process for a variety of oil and gas activities within unincorporated portions of the County, including for oil and gas production wells and related infrastructure such as well pads…
On January 12, 2018, the First Appellate District held that the California Attorney General need not exhaust administrative remedies in order to contest the adequacy of Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), as is normally required of third-party challengers under Section 21177. City of Long Beach v. City of Los Angeles, Case No. A148993 (2018). The Appeals Court also held that BNSF Railway Company’s (BNSF) proposed construction of a new railyard in Southern California failed to adequately consider air quality impacts from the project. The case emphasizes the need for EIRs to consider impacts to ambient air pollutant concentrations and the cumulative impacts of such pollutants under CEQA, even if the underlying analysis may be time consuming and difficult to generate.
On July 17, 2017 the California legislature approved an extension of the state’s greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program from 2020 to 2030. Cap-and-trade is a key program in the state’s efforts to meets its 2030 greenhouse gas reduction goals of 40% below 1990 levels covering emissions from industrial facilities and electricity and natural gas suppliers.
Governor Brown and legislative leaders have worked for several months on a package of bills that could achieve a 2/3 majority in the legislature, insulating the cap-and-trade program from additional challenges under Proposition 13 and providing the state with considerable discretion in spending revenues generated by the program. This grand bargain includes a cap on the price of emission allowances sold under the program, measures to reduce emissions of non-greenhouse gas pollutants from industrial facilities and refineries, an increase in maximum penalty for violations of state air rules, and tax credits for energy producers. In extending cap-and-trade, the legislation also blocks an effort by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (“BAAQMD”) to cap greenhouse gas emissions from Bay Area refineries.
On May 25, 2017, the First Appellate District published a modified version of its unpublished March 23, 2017 opinion, holding that the Mendocino County Air Quality Management District’s (“MCAQMD”) issuance of an “Authority to Construct” (“ATC”) for an asphalt production plant could be challenged under CEQA. In Friends of Outlet Creek v. Mendocino County Air Quality Management District, the trial court had sustained a demurrer by the MCAQMD and the applicant on the grounds that petitioner could only challenge the ATC approval in a proceeding under Health and Safety Code section 40864. The First Appellate District reversed, finding ample legal authority for administrative mandate proceedings under CEQA to challenge issuance of permits by air quality management districts.