The California Supreme Court recently ruled that the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) is required to consider already-permitted equipment that predated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when it conducts an environmental impact analysis of upgrades at a Los Angeles refinery. Communities for a Better Env’t v. SCAQMD, No. 5161190 (Cal. 03/15/10). The court reversed SCAQMD’s decision not to conduct a full environmental impact analysis and ordered the agency to do so. At issue were construction permits SCAQMD issued to the refinery allowing an upgrade to produce ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel. SCAQMD had decided that the projects did not trigger CEQA review. Plaintiffs challenged the permits, urging that the agency had failed to consider the increased nitrogen oxide emission resulting from the increased use of the refinery’s steam generation equipment. The agency prevailed in the trial court, but the appellate court reversed, and the agency appealed.
The state supreme court affirmed, concluding that “the impacts of a proposed project are ordinarily to be compared to the actual environmental conditions existing at the time of the CEQA analysis, rather than to allowable conditions defined by a plan or regulatory framework.” The court rejected SCAQMD’s argument that failure to use the maximum permitted emission of the equipment as a baseline would contravene CEQA’s statute of limitations.