Court Clarifies that CEQA is a One-Way Street: EIRs Need Not Analyze Impact of Global Climate Change on Proposed Projects

The California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA"), at its essence, requires lead agencies to identify the potential significant impacts a proposed project may have on the environment. A California appellate court in Ballona Wetlands Land Trust v. City of Los Angeles (2011) 201 Cal.App.4th 455 recently clarified that CEQA does not require lead agencies to identify or analyze impacts the environment may have on a proposed project. Specifically, the court held that the City of Los Angeles ("City") was not required to discuss the impact of sea level rise on a proposed mixed-use development in its Environmental Impact Report ("EIR").

The City certified a revised EIR after being ordered by the lower court to vacate its original certification. The revised EIR included a new section discussing the impacts of global climate change in light of new legislation mandating a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The City noted in its revised EIR that global warming could result in sea level rise and the inundation of coastal areas, but provided no specific analysis of the impact on the project site.

Ballona Wetlands Land Trust ("Land Trust") challenged the revised EIR's analysis of global climate change, arguing that the City failed to adequately discuss impacts relating to sea level rise.

The Court rejected the Land Trust's contention, favoring the narrow rule articulated in City of Long Beach v. Los Angeles Unified School Dist. (2009) 176 Cal.App.4th 889. Citing City of Long Beach, the Court clarified that the purpose of an EIR is to identify the significant effects of a project on the environment, not the significant effects of the environment on a project. In making this clarification, the court invalidated CEQA Guideline section 15126.2(a), which states that EIRs should identify significant effects of the environment on a project. Such a requirement, the court found, is neither consistent with CEQA's legislative purpose nor required by CEQA. The City's global climate change analysis was therefore adequate.

Ballona Wetlandsis one of the earliest decisions to provide guidance regarding the extent to which global climate change must be analyzed in environmental documents. Given the contentious nature of global climate change and its evolving role in the CEQA process, we fully anticipate that future court decisions will offer additional guidance and elaboration on this issue in the years to come.

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