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CEQA Meets Climate Change In Air Regulators' White Paper

A key document in the evolving methodology for evaluating development's impact on climate change has been released by the California Air Pollution Control Officers Association.

Called "CEQA & Climate Change Evaluating and Addressing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Projects Subject to the California Environmental Quality Act," the white paper is lengthy (more than 140 pages), detailed and highly technical. It is also both potentially frustrating to planners and technicians who were hoping for strict guidance, and a relief to the development community, which is very wary of definitive numbers.

"There is kind of a void out there right now," explained Mel Zeldin, executive director of the association, known as CAPCOA. The white paper "is designed as a resource document. It's not a guidance document. We're not in a position where we felt comfortable telling local officials what they should do."

Instead, the white paper lays out three basic options for agencies conducting environmental reviews:

CEQA review with no thresholds of significance for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. "As with other project types, the lead agency could conduct a project specific analysis to determine whether an environmental impact report is needed and to determine the level of mitigation that is appropriate," the white paper says. "Over time, the agency could amass information and experience with specific project categories that would support establishing explicit thresholds."

Setting a GHG threshold of significance of zero, meaning that essentially every discretionary project would be subject to environmental review and mitigation requirements.

Establishing GHG thresholds of significance at levels other than zero. These "non-zero" thresholds could be based on state or local air district thresholds for GHG if they exist, or could be established based on the type of emission and what activity is generating the emissions.

"By itself, establishment of a GHG threshold will not insulate individual CEQA analyses from challenge," the white paper warns. "Defensibility depends upon the adequacy of the analysis prepared by the lead agency and the process followed."

The paper also contains a chapter on potential mitigation measures that lead agencies could apply to projects. "The recurring theme that echoes throughout a majority of these measures is the shift toward new urbanism," the white paper states. "[R]esearch has consistently shown that implementation of neotraditional development techniques reduces VMT [vehicle miles traveled] and associated emissions." In other words, urban design that encourages walking, bicycling and use of transit, and which discourages driving and convenient parking, may be considered mitigation.

The CAPCOA white paper arrives at a time when people involved in almost any aspect of land use are desperate for information on how to apply CEQA to the issue of global climate change. For a period, there was a question about whether a project's potential to contribute to climate change was even an issue for CEQA. State Attorney General Jerry Brown answered the question affirmatively, and the Legislature confirmed Brown's position last year when it passed SB 97 (Dutton) (see CP&DR Environment Watch, October 2007). Among other things, that law directs the Governor's Office of Planning and Research (OPR) to prepare CEQA "guidelines for the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions or the effects of greenhouse gas emissions" by July 1, 2009. The Resources Agency is supposed to adopt the guidelines by January 1, 2010.

In the meantime, practitioners are feeling their way around. In June 2007, the Association of Environmental Professionals produced what at the time was the most detailed "white paper" for dealing with GHG in a CEQA context (see CP&DR, July 2007). The AEP offered up eight potential methodologies.

The CAPCOA white paper narrows the alternatives and focuses on quantifying emissions, said Michael Hendrix, of Chambers Group in Redlands and a co-author of the AEP document.

"It's probably not good news for the developers, because they'll have to identify their emissions and mitigate them," Hendrix said of the CAPCOA advisory.

Al Herson, environmental practice leader for SWCA Environmental Consultants in Sacramento, said it is important to remember that applying CEQA to climate change is a practice that is only about 18 months old. Because there is little practical experience and no case law, everyone needs to have patience, he said. "There is a period of turmoil right now," he said.

The CAPCOA paper, "does advance us in terms of how we do these analyses," Herson said. "For folks who are steeped in preparing climate change sections of EIRs, there is some useful information at a high technical level."

The paper might have been more useful, Herson added, if it contained recommendations for thresholds. A "net zero" threshold is not practical and may go beyond CEQA because it would require mitigation for any project that does not actually reduce current greenhouse gas emissions,. Herson noted.

Dave Vintze, air quality planning manager for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and a principal co-author of the CAPCOA paper, said the organization could not make recommendations on thresholds of significance because the members do not agree.

"All we could do with the white paper is identify different strategies that air districts and lead agencies could choose to use," Vintze said. To date, no government agency in California has set a GHG threshold of significance, although some air districts, including Vintze's, are headed in that direction.

During its preparation of the white paper, Vintze said, CAPCOA members found that the few EIRs that have addressed climate change did so only at a cursory level, and no EIR attempted to quantify GHG emissions from a development project or long-range plan. The environmental studies have either said it's all too speculative and therefore no additional discussion or mitigation is required, or the EIRs said any emission of GHG is significant and therefore requires mitigation, Vintze explained. The CAPCOA paper should help agencies prepare more detailed, quantitative reviews, he said.

Hendrix said the analysts are starting to do project-by-project reviews based on concepts contained AB 32 (the greenhouse gas emissions reductions law) and incorporating emissions reduction strategies endorsed by the state.

"Everybody now is holding their breath hoping OPR will save them," Hendrix added. "But OPR gives wide deference to lead agencies the law itself gives them this authority."

Contacts:
Mel Zeldin, California Air Pollution Control Officers Association, (916) 449-9603.
Dave Vintze, Bay Area Air Quality Management District, (415) 749-5000.
Michael Hendrix, Chambers Group, (909) 335-7068.
Al Herson, SWCA Environmental Consultants, (916) 565-0356.
CAPCOA website: http://www.capcoa.org/
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