Cleveland National Forest Foundation V. San Diego Association of Governments
At the heart of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lie these democratic values: an informed public and agency accountability. Without these bedrock principles, the sacred light of the public planning process is prey to the darkness of market propaganda and the shadow of powerful special interests. Without the light shed by CEQA on public and private projects, the health of people of California and the viability of its built and natural environment are subject to grave risk.
In this litigation, the crisis of global warming and CEQA met in the public arena owing in part to SB 375. This statute, enacted in 2008, mandates that regional transportation agencies like SANDAG coordinate transportation and land use planning in a manner that significantly reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the state. The case is important because it raises the critical issue of which standard should be used to assess the GHG impacts resulting from the 40-year Plan. While SANDAG based its assessment on measures that calculate short-term effects, the agency ignored what scientists regard as the most authoritative standard for long-term GHG reduction: Governor Schwarzenegger’s Executive Order S-03-05. This Executive Order calls for 80 % reduction of 1990 GHG levels by the year 2050.
SANDAG’s refusal to analyze its Plan’s GHG impacts under the long-term standard set by the Executive Order was unlawful under CEQA. Because of this omission, members of the public and decision-makers were left in the dark as to the long-term impacts of the Plan. As the court explained in its final ruling, the EIR’s discussion of the Executive Order was “impermissibly dismissive.” Because this Order represents “an official policy of the State . . . [that was] not withdrawn or modified,” SANDAG “cannot simply ignore it.”
Attempting to evade the Executive Order, SANDAG made much of the fact that its Plan had met SB 375’s reduction targets for 2020 and 2035. The court emphatically rejected this argument. It noted that GHG emissions from the Plan—which will remain in effect until 2050—would dramatically increase after 2035. The court also criticized SANDAG for failing to adopt feasible mitigation for the Plan’s impacts on climate disruption. As the court put it, “SANDAG’s response has been to ‘kick the can down the road’ and defer to ‘local jurisdictions’” for mitigation.
In its final judgment invalidating SANDAG’s environmental review, the court directed the agency to revise or supplement its EIR in order to properly analyze and mitigate the GHG implications of the 2050 Plan.
The debate over which standard to use in evaluating the consequences of the SANDAG Plan to the health of the San Diego region—and the planet—is not academic. The court observed that this Plan applies to a region where “hundreds of thousands of people in the communities served by SANDAG live in low-lying areas near the coast, and are thus susceptible to rising sea levels associated with global climate change.” As the GHG emission graph below demonstrates, the diversion between SANDAG Plan’s projected emissions and the reduction goal required for a healthy planet is the difference between fantasy and reality, propaganda and truth. The public had a right to know the enormous impacts of this monumental planning discrepancy
- Save Our Forest and Ranchlands
- San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO
- College Area Business Improvement District
- Urban Housing Partners, Inc.
- Oliver McMillan
- Environmental Health Coalition
- UNITE HERE Local 30
- Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation
- Affordable Housing Coalition of San Diego