Bay Area Air District Adopts CEQA Thresholds for Greenhouse Gases

Author:Mr Mitchell Randall and Miles H. Imwalle
Profession:Morrison & Foerster LLP

After more than a year of debate, delays, and revision, on June 2, 2010, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District ("BAAQMD") finally adopted new guidelines for analyzing air quality impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act; these are likely to significantly impact the types and patterns of development in the Bay Area—and perhaps beyond—for years to come. The BAAQMD guidelines include two particularly controversial issues: thresholds of significance for (1) the analysis of greenhouse gas ("GHG") impacts, and (2) local community risk/hazard impacts. The setting of GHG thresholds brings welcome certainty to area agencies that have struggled with GHG thresholds for the last several years. However, the low level of the threshold will likely result in: (i) greater and more comprehensive mitigation, (ii) more development projects needing to prepare lengthy environmental impact reports, rather than a more streamlined CEQA document that would otherwise be available, (iii) further slowing during the permitting process and (iv) increased burdens on lead agencies. Ironically, the second controversial threshold relating to local community risk impacts will make it more difficult to approve projects in the densest urban areas, precisely the location where it is easiest to build projects with minimal carbon footprint.

Although the thresholds are technically advisory, due to BAAQMD's air quality expertise, they will establish de facto standards for local agencies' adoption of planning documents and consideration of development projects, and will have wide influence on the future of individual project approvals and land use planning in the Bay Area. Additionally, because other agencies around the state generally do not have adopted thresholds for GHG impacts, local agencies in other parts of the state may look to BAAQMD's standards.


BAAQMD's first ever project-level, operational-related thresholds now set a standard for analyzing GHG emissions from development projects. The BAAQMD guidelines set two types of thresholds. First, the GHG emissions relating to a project that complies with what the document dubs a "Qualified GHG Reduction Strategy" (discussed further below) are presumed to have a less than significant impact. Second, GHG emissions that are below certain numeric thresholds are considered less than significant. At this time, no Qualified GHG Reduction Strategy exists in the Bay Area, so in the near term, projects will be judged by the numeric thresholds.

For land use development projects, which include commercial, residential, industrial, and public land use facilities, emissions generated must be less than 1,100 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent ("MTCO2e")1 per year or 4.6 MTCO2e per year for each resident and employee within the applicable service area. BAAQMD initially proposed only the hard cap of 1,100 MTCO2e per year, but after stakeholders pointed out that efficient, large-scale projects can be an important key to reducing overall emissions, the agency included the second efficiency standard. For stationary sources BAAQMD has established a bright-line threshold of 10,000 metric tons per year.

BAAQMD estimates that the following types of development projects, among others, will exceed the GHG operational threshold of 1,100 MTCO2e per year:

56 single-family dwelling-unit project 83-room hotel 19,000 square-foot regional shopping center 53,000 square-foot general office building 22,000...

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