Keys to Developing CEQA Analysis with Net-Zero Emissions Threshold

The environmental impact report (EIR) for the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) new world-class motor vehicle and emissions testing and research facility is one of the first projects to use zero-emissions thresholds for evaluating greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts in a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) document. CARB established the zero-emission goal to be proactive in meeting Assembly Bill (AB) 32’s statewide GHG emission reductions targets beyond 2020.

CARB has outgrown its current El Monte location for motor vehicle emissions standards development and testing and will relocate to an 18-acre campus-style facility 45 miles away in Riverside. The facility will also be a national and international center for air pollution and climate change research. The project is expected to be completed in 2021.

Defining Significant Impacts

“After the State Supreme Court’s ruling in the Newhall case (Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife), there is a gray area when it comes to defining a project’s GHG significant impacts beyond 2020,” said Adam Poll, Dudek’s air quality specialist for the EIR. “Local agencies’ climate action plans are not certified beyond 2020, so they can’t be relied upon to determine significance of projects operational beyond that time.” Without a local climate action plan to look toward, the state looked at its own mission to determine an appropriate threshold.

Rica Nitka, Dudek’s project manager for the EIR, said:

“As the lead agency, CARB could create its own significance threshold and commit to achieving a net-zero increase in GHG emissions or no net increase above existing conditions.”

As noted in the Findings of Fact and Statement of Overriding Considerations, CARB recognizes there are multiple pathways available under CEQA for a lead agency to assess and analyze the significance of project-specific GHG emissions; the use of a zero GHG emissions commitment and threshold is not presented as a generally applied threshold of significance for GHG impacts.

The agency is committed to estimating and mitigating all construction and operational emissions on an annual basis for the life of the project and will annually post the information on its website. “This is a very rigorous mitigation monitoring program,” Poll said. In the following sections, Nitka and Poll discuss several key considerations in developing the CEQA analysis with a net-zero emissions threshold.

Total Vehicle Miles Traveled

CARB will implement an aggressive transportation demand management program to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) resulting from the project. The program will encourage alternative transportation options to driving alone in a conventional vehicle. CARB will also work with local transit agencies to address potential route additions and appropriate regional stops to facilitate the use of public transportation for CARB employees.

Because CARB is relocating its facility, the EIR accounted for several factors in calculating VMT. First-year emissions are expected to be higher as employees’ commute is extended. Over time, emissions are expected to decline as employees reside closer to Riverside and use more zero-emissions vehicles. The new facility is designed to accommodate more than 200 plug-in electric vehicle charging stations.

Managing CEQA Analysis for a Design-Build Project

Design-build is becoming more popular with public agencies and it presents a challenge for the CEQA process, Nitka said. “A CEQA analysis needs a clear project description, but with design-build, some details for the project are still in the process of being defined,” she said. During CEQA document preparation, energy sources under consideration included fuel cell technology and solar photovoltaics. Utilizing key design criteria, the ultimate technologies used will be determined during final design.

CARB has set a priority on minimizing GHG emissions during project design. The CEQA team focused on “worst-case” examples using fuel cell technology and developed the most expansive evaluation of potential impacts to allow for public disclosure of maximum impacts. “It is better to disclose maximum impacts to the public rather than under-estimate impacts and have them increase over the project life,” Nitka said.

Project Assumptions Have Financial Impact

Poll said establishing assumptions is important because they have a direct financial impact on CARB due to the net-zero GHG threshold.

“CARB’s strategies for achieving the net-zero goal is based on a hierarchy of potential mitigation strategies that range from potential emission-reducing design modifications to purchasing voluntary carbon credits, so the assumptions all have a monetary impact.”

The project is expected to break ground in 2018 and be completed in early 2021.

For more information, contact Adam Poll or Rica Nitka. Project information, including the Final EIR may be found on the CARB website.