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California Supreme Court calls for more robust analysis of greenhouse gas emissions in planning

Sean Hecht, LEGAL PLANET

So SANDAG won the Supreme Court case.  Nonetheless, the opinion was framed very narrowly, and reaffirms that an Environmental Impact Statement for a planning project must develop a robust analysis of greenhouse gas emissions under the plan.  Here, I’ll explain why the opinion will ensure that local governments and courts seriously and rigorously consider greenhouse gas emissions when they develop plans for future growth, development, and transportation.

In May, Rick Frank posted his reflections on the oral argument in the California Supreme Court on Cleveland National Forest Association v. San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), and predicted that SANDAG would win the case.  His prediction has proved correct with the release of the Court’s opinion last week – but SANDAG’s narrow win provides a lot to be cheer about for advocates and policymakers who want to ensure that new development and transportation planning in California helps, rather than hinders, our statewide greenhouse gas reduction efforts.  [Disclosure: UCLA’s Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, through the work of my colleague Cara Horowitz and several students, filed an amicus curiae brief in this case on behalf of a group of scientists, supporting the plaintiffs.]
Several prior Legal Planet posts have covered the issues in this case (including this detailed discussion by Rick after the Court accepted the case for review,  this one by Rick after the case was calendared, and this analysis by Ethan Elkind after the Court of Appeal opinion was issued) so I’ll just summarize them here briefly.  The plaintiffs – who included the California Attorney General as well as multiple advocacy groups – challenged the legal adequacy of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for SANDAG’s 2011 regional transportation plan, a legally-mandated plan setting forth a multi-decade strategy for meeting future transportation needs in the San Diego region.  At issue was the plan’s implications for future emissions of greenhouse gases, and whether the EIR did a good enough job explaining and addressing those implications.  The plaintiffs, including the Attorney General, alleged that the EIR didn’t do a good enough job.  They asserted that the EIR insufficiently disclosed and analyzed the plan’s inconsistency with state greenhouse gas reduction goals articulated in an executive order that required 80% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.  They also claimed that the EIR failed to adequately consider alternatives and mitigation measures to reduce future emissions.
Both the trial court and Court of Appeal agreed with the plaintiffs that the environmental review was inadequate.The Supreme Court granted review on one issue: “Must the environmental impact report for a regional transportation plan include an analysis of the plan’s consistency with the greenhouse gas emission reduction goals reflected in Executive Order No. S-3-05 to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act?”  The Court did not, however, review the Court of Appeal’s judgment that the EIR didn’t sufficiently consider mitigation or alternatives.
All the parties’ briefs are archived here, for anyone who might be interested.
Read more at: Cal. Supreme Court Upholds SANDAG CEQA | Legal Planet