New California Environmental Quality Act Guidelines that urge public agencies to quantify and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from projects whenever possible have gone into effect. Outgoing Natural Resources Secretary Michael Chrisman signed the guideline amendments on December 30.
Although not everyone is happy with the changes, this guidelines amendment process appears to have gone more smoothly than recent ones. The Wilson administration spent seven years on guidelines amendments – only to have several components thrown out by a court. In its nearly five years, the Davis administration did not complete a substantive guidelines update.
This time, though, state lawmakers gave the Office of Planning and Research and the Natural Resources Agency a little more than two years to complete the task. Senate Bill 97 from 2007 set a January 1, 2010, deadline for new California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Guidelines related to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions analysis and mitigation (see CP&DR Environment Watch, October 2007).
"At bottom, what these changes do is ensure greenhouse gas emissions are included in environmental review documents," said Christopher Calfee, Natural Resources Agency special counsel. "That's a big deal. There has been a lot of inconsistency."
What the amendments do not do, said Calfee, is create a unique scheme or approach for greenhouse gas emissions. The guidelines require an agency that is evaluating a CEQA project to gather the relevant information and analyze that information based on scientific and factual data. Hence, said Calfee, "The analysis you do for greenhouse gas emissions is the same as you do for most other impacts."
The new guidelines also emphasize the use of tiering in CEQA documents. So, for example, a project-level analysis could rely heavily on a program-level environmental impact report prepared for a local climate action plan or GHG emissions reduction strategy. This tiering should help streamline environmental reviews, Calfee said.
The new guidelines do not establish thresholds for determining whether a project's GHG emissions are significant. The new guidelines do not even prescribe exactly how an agency must quantify or mitigate emissions. Instead, the guidelines permit agencies to describe a project's emissions quantitatively or qualitatively. The guidelines say on-site mitigation is preferable, but not required, and must be subject to monitoring. The CEQA Guidelines have long recognized lead agency discretion, and the amendments related to GHG are no different, Calfee explained.
The deference to lead agencies did not satisfy some environmental groups, which pressed for a more prescriptive approach. In a letter to the Natural Resources Agency, seven environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthjustice, say the new guidelines provide a loophole by permitting agencies to describe emissions qualitatively. "Despite the importance of quantitative data on project emissions in understanding project impacts, the language of Guidelines § 15064.4(a) serves to bolster the misplaced argument that readily available quantitative data on project emissions need not be provided to the public," the letter states. That data, environmentalist say, may be necessary to make a fair argument that a project could have a substantial impact on the environment – the standard for requiring an environmental impact report.
While environmental groups were not satisfied, many planners and environmental professionals said the Natural Resources Agency responded to their concerns. The CEQA Guidelines contain specific thresholds of significance for only a few subjects, and establishing them right now for GHG emissions would have been unnecessarily limiting, said Kent Norton, an Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP) board member. Thresholds of significance are typically left to local agencies, said Norton, who works for The Planning Center.
"We were very satisfied with the way this came out," added Gene Talmadge, AEP president. "Was it perfect? No. It never is. But we think the Natural Resources Agency listened to us."
The agency also listened to planners and alternative-transportation advocates, who convinced the agency to alter Appendix G checklist questions concerning transportation and traffic. Previously, the first two questions asked whether a project would impact street system capacity or result in a reduced level of service. Planners and advocates argued that such measurements forced agencies to favor automobiles, even though the state is trying to decrease emissions from automobiles.
One revised checklist question now asks: "Would the project conflict with an applicable plan, ordinance or policy establishing measures of effectiveness for the performance of the circulation system, taking into account all modes of transportation including mass transit and non-motorized travel and relevant components of the circulation system, including but not limited to intersections, streets, highways and freeways, pedestrian and bicycle paths and mass transit?"
The next question asks: "Would the project conflict with an applicable congestion management program, including but not limited to level of service standards and travel demand measures, or other standards established by the county congestion management agency for designated roads or highways?"
The idea, said Calfee, is to get agencies to "focus on the entire circulation system." Although some planners and advocates urged the Natural Resources Agency to disavow the level of service concept altogether, Calfee said the agency could not. "The Congestion Management Act and the Government Code require level of service to be included in congestion management programs," he explained.
Officials did drop parking capacity from the checklist and expanded a question regarding a project's potential conflicts with public transit and bicycle or pedestrian facilities.
Jennifer Klausner, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, endorsed the changes because the previous checklist "emphasized a purely car-centric point of view" that discouraged bicycle travel.
Planners appeared divided on the parking question, which some arguing that a lack of parking could lead to motorists cruising for spaces, thus emitting more greenhouse gases. But UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup, author of the influential book The High Cost of Free Parking, rejected that argument. "Cruising is caused by the city's failure to charge the right prices for curb parking," he wrote.
Shoup continued, "Rather than try to force up the parking supply and automobile trips, CEQA should focus on reducing automobile trips, or should at least not have a policy that will increase automobile trips."
The revised guidelines additionally make clear that the Appendix F analysis of energy is now mandatory, not optional. However, officials declined to require analysis of a project's "lifecycle" energy usage because there is no agreement on how to define lifecycle, Calfee said.
Christopher Calfee, Natural Resources Agency, (916) 653-5656.
Gene Talmadge, Association of Environmental Professionals, (805) 427-4123.
Jennifer Klausner, Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, (213) 629-2142.
Revised CEQA Guidelines: http://ceres.ca.gov/ceqa/guidelines.