A coalition of environmental justice groups has sued the City of Richmond, California, for giving public approval to the overhaul and upgrade of a Chevron oil refinery in the area. According to the City's description of the project, the retooling would not increase the refinery's capacity, but would allow the plant to use a wider variety of crude oils.
The lawsuit alleges multiple failures by the City to comply with the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), California's more-stringent analogue to NEPA, the federal statute that requires environmental review of major federal actions.
Among the CEQA violations alleged in the complaint is the City's failure to account for and adequately mitigate increased greenhouse gas emissions from the Chevron facility, amounting to 898,000 tons of additional (unspecified) GHG emissions per year. The complaint asserts that the project will also result in increased local emissions of other air pollutants, including mercury, selenium, sulfur flare gas, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. Chevron, which is named as a party in interest to the suit, claims that the project will result in an overall reduction in air emissions in the Bay Area.
Greenhouse gas emissions are not the focus of the lawsuit, and the overall structure of the complaint suggests that the project's contribution to climate change is at best a sideline issue. Plaintiffs appear far more concerned with environmental justice and siting issues. This does not mean, however, that the CEQA claims about GHG emissions will not be the ones to slow or even stop the project.
Given the ubiquity of GHG emissions and the lack of clarity about their proper treatment under state and federal environmental review provisions, GHG-based claims are likely to become common features of run-of-the-mill "NIMBY" (Not In My Back Yard) suits, as potential plaintiffs realize their potential to hold up projects. Consequently, project proponents may be advised not to resist addressing GHG emissions in the environmental review process, but to actively engage those issues to insulate themselves from such claims.