The California Office of Planning and Research (OPR) recently issued a Technical Advisory, providing assistance to CEQA practitioners, land use officials, planners and others on the treatment of climate change in CEQA documents. OPR is in the process of preparing formal amendments to the State CEQA Guidelines for adoption by the California Resources Agency on or before January, 2010. These amendments will provide the regulatory guidance for the analysis of GHG (greenhouse gas emissions) and corresponding mitigation in CEQA documents. Pending adoption of these amendments, OPR has produced, in cooperation with the Resources Agency, Cal EPA and the California Air Resources Board (ARB), the Technical Advisory to assist lead agencies in addressing climate change in CEQA documents.

In evaluation of project and cumulative impacts in a CEQA document (EIR or negative declaration), neither CEQA nor the State CEQA Guidelines mandate particular thresholds of significance or methodologies. These determinations are left to the lead agency. OPR recognizes that the issue of climate change and the effect of GHG emissions is not merely a local issue, but one that must be looked at statewide. Thus, OPR is seeking a recommendation from ARB for an appropriate method of setting thresholds of significance to encourage consistency of analysis of GHG emissions in CEQA documents throughout the state. The Technical Advisory provides the recommendation for an interim approach.

OPR identifies and discusses steps in the CEQA analysis that lead agencies should employ in the treatment of impacts from GHG emissions on climate change. These steps are summarized below:

  • Determine whether GHG emissions will be generated by the project under review. State law defines GHG emissions to include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride (California Health & Safety Code § 38505(g)).
  • Quantify or estimate the GHG emissions from the project, including those associated with vehicular traffic, energy consumption, water usage and construction activities. Examples of modeling tools are identified in an attachment to the Technical Advisory.
  • Determine whether the GHG emissions are individually or cumulatively significant. Recognizing that without regulatory standards or other scientific data that clearly define a significant impact in this context, OPR indicates that the determination may be made by individual agencies based upon a project-by-project analysis, "consistent with available guidance and current CEQA practice." OPR cautions, however, that lead agencies should not dismiss direct and/or indirect climate change impacts without carefully considering the potential impacts, based upon substantial evidence.
  • OPR recognizes that even though "climate change is ultimately a cumulative impact," not every project with GHG emissions must be determined to contribute to a significant cumulative impact. Reliance on approved plans and mitigation programs that have analyzed and mitigated GHG emissions to less than significant levels often can provide the means to avoid or substantially reduce a cumulative impact resulting from GHG emissions.
  • Lead agencies must impose all feasible mitigation measures necessary to reduce GHG emissions to a less than significant level. Where mitigation measures are identified but determined to be infeasible, the lead agency should adopt any measures it determines are feasible and adopt a Statement of Overriding Considerations to explain why other mitigation is not feasible.
  • OPR encourages lead agencies to develop standard GHG emission mitigation measures to apply on a project-by-project basis. The Technical Advisory attaches a list of measures that may be considered. This list is not meant by OPR to be exhaustive or prescriptive.

The steps identified above are not really any different from the steps employed for analysis of other types of potentially significant impacts addressed in CEQA documents. However, since there has been much debate and discussion about climate change among land use practitioners and those responsible for the implementation of CEQA, the Technical Advisory provides direction. For some, this direction may confirm the approach to assessing impacts from GHG emissions already employed. For others, it may assist in developing a more comprehensive and meaningful approach.

In addition to its discussion of impact analysis and mitigation, OPR includes useful information on resources, modeling and mitigation measures. Attached to the Technical Advisory are references and information sources (Attachment 1), a list of technical resources and modeling tools (Attachment 2), and examples of measures to reduce GHG emissions (Attachment 3). The Technical Advisory, including these attachments, can be accessed on the OPR website (