Agencies Vetting Greenhouse Gas Environmental Review Triggers

By Published On: October 31, 2008

The California Energy Commission and Air Resources Board are grappling with the level of greenhouse gas emissions that should trigger an in-depth environmental impact analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act. The emissions could be from new power plants, industry, and other development projects. The Energy Commission sought public input October 28 on strategies for assessing proposed fossil-fueled power projects’ global warming impacts. The day before, the Air Board held a workshop to discuss its tentative steps at outlining the amount of carbon emissions from industrial processes and commercial and residential developments that should be deemed “significant” under the state’s Environmental Quality Act. A key issue and sticking point on the CEQA analysis is expected to be the cumulative greenhouse gas impacts of new power plants, industrial facilities, and development projects. “Global warming is the ultimate cumulative impact,” said Dick Ratliff, California Energy Commission staff member, while discussing where to set the CEQA trigger on new projects. Utility and power project developers asked the Energy Commission to look at the larger picture and assess global warming impacts from a “programmatic” perspective in place of a project-by-project analysis. (Programmatic refers to a statewide analysis instead of a case-by-case review of specific power plants.) “This is unlike anything we’ve ever analyzed before under CEQA,” said Pacific Gas & Electric attorney Scott Galati. He urged the energy commission to fold the issue, not into its power plant certification process, but into its Integrated Energy Policy Report. The IEPR aims to guide state energy policy. Representatives from environmental justice organizations sharply disagreed. “We need to know how much greenhouse gas each project is putting out,” said Will Rostov, Earthjustice attorney. He added that the commission’s certification process already analyzes a long list of possible environmental harms and that it was senseless to exclude global warming impacts. Under the California Environmental Quality Act, power projects and new commercial developments estimated to have considerable negative consequences on air, water, or other resources must be accompanied by a full-blown environmental impact analysis and proposed mitigation measures before going forward. (For the CEC, those requirements are embedded in the governing Warren-Alquist Act.) The Air Board’s staff said it is striving to create consistency among state and local agencies charged with assessing when a project’s global warming impacts are significant and should be mitigated. The board’s efforts under the state’s environmental act constitute one prong of a three-pronged approach to controlling greenhouse gases from development projects, according to Kurt Karperos, Air Board chief of air quality transportation planning. The other two include regulation under the state’s climate protection law, AB 32, and development of regional sustainability guidelines under SB 375. The latter measure seeks to channel state transportation project money to communities that change their land-use practices to cut greenhouse gases. The CEQA effort aims to get at projects prior to AB 32 and SB 375 implementation. AB 32 seeks a 30 percent reduction in the state’s carbon emissions by 2020. SB 375 requires the Air Board to develop regional greenhouse gas reduction targets for cars and light trucks in 2020 and 2035 respectively, and to help regional agencies develop sustainable development plans by curbing sprawling developments. The Air Board pitched setting a “non-zero” threshold, which would basically exempt certain projects estimated to emit a minimal amount of global warming pollution. “[S]ome level of emissions in the near term and at mid century is still consistent with climate stabilization,” states the board’s draft proposal. It sets different California Environmental Quality Act thresholds for different types of developments on an interim basis. Under the Air Board staff’s preliminary proposal, whether an industrial project’s impacts are significant would be measured against a numerical threshold. New factories and other industrial processes that emit 7,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year or more would be subject to an impact analysis. However this proposed “significance” finding can be rebutted. The numerical threshold is expected to capture 90 percent of the emissions from industrial processes, with the vast majority–70 percent– from the boilers and other combustion processes. Last year, SB 97 was enacted to require development of state guidelines for evaluating when to include carbon emissions in environmental impact assessments. In addition, the state Attorney General sued some local agencies, including San Bernardino County, for failing to analyze global warming impacts of their long-term land use plans. The local agencies and the AG subsequently reached agreement on the matter. Editors’ note: For a more detailed version of this story, please see our sister publication E=MC2 – Energy Meets Climate Challenge. You can find it at www.energymeetsclimate.com

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