(CN) – In a case that has implications for how California cities and counties will address emissions responsible for climate change, the California Supreme Court ruled local governments must be guided by state law rather than an executive order signed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The California Supreme Court ruled in favor of the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) on Thursday, saying the agency adequately followed state law when it developed an environmental impact report for its regional transportation network.
“We are very pleased with today’s outcome,” SANDAG chair and county supervisor Ron Roberts said. “Rulings by the lower courts left local governments confused about how they should analyze greenhouse gas emissions; should we follow state law as established by the Legislature, or follow executive orders issued by the governor? The court clarified today that our responsibility is to state law, and that SANDAG appropriately followed that law.”
In its 25-page ruling, the court emphasized it was not ruling on the sufficiency of the impact report or of the project it describes, but merely intended to sort out which regulations local jurisdictions must adhere to when conducting environmental analysis for public benefit.
“Our decision is not a general endorsement of the adequacy of SANDAG‘s EIR, much less an endorsement of the adequacy of the regional plan that the EIR analyzes,” Justice Goodwin Liu wrote for the majority. “We hold only that SANDAG, in analyzing greenhouse gas impacts at the time of the EIR, did not abuse its discretion by declining to adopt the executive order as a measure of significance or to discuss the executive order more than it did.”
The executive order signed by Schwarzenegger in June 2005 set overall greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for the state, requiring California to decrease emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
Soon after, the Legislature passed the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, AB 32, which also set targets for greenhouse gas reductions.
Discrepancies between the executive order and AB 32 have caused confusion for local jurisdictions attempting to conduct environmental analysis of the impact projects will have on emissions goals.
The high court ruled that SANDAG properly hewed to the Legislature’s regulations, but did not address other disputed aspects of the impact report.
The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the initial suit filed in 2011, said the ruling still emphasizes the need for local jurisdictions and regional transportation planners to provide complete and comprehensive analysis of project impacts to climate change.
“We disagree with the court’s narrow ruling, but this decision will clearly push transportation planners to better evaluate the massive greenhouse pollution generated by decades of sprawl development and neglect of public transit,” Kevin Bundy, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said.
The ruling also did not affect the ruling of the Fourth Appellate District, which found SANDAG’s environmental report inadequate on several other grounds.
SANDAG released its long-range regional transportation plan in 2011, calling for $214 billion in transportation infrastructure projects.
The Cleveland National Forest Foundation and other organizations sued soon after, saying the plan did not have an impact report that adequately addressed climate change, a position supported by the California Attorney General at the time.
“San Diego residents deserve a future with increased transit, bike and walk commutes, clean air and water, and protected open space. At its core, that’s what this lawsuit was about,” said Jana Clark, Cleveland National Forest Foundation board member. “Regardless of today’s narrow ruling from the California Supreme Court, our lawsuit against SANDAG has been a major victory for the health and quality of life of all San Diegans because it has initiated a changed SANDAG.”