SF Bay Area Air Quality Thresholds for GHG Emissions

On August 13, 2013, the First District Court of Appeal reinstated controversial air quality guidelines adopted by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), including numeric greenhouse gas (GHG) thresholds of significance.

In June 2010, the BAAQMD adopted air quality thresholds for CEQA air quality analyses.  They included the first numeric thresholds for evaluating GHG emission impacts.  Projects with emissions exceeding the thresholds would result in a finding of a significant impact, triggering an environmental impact report (EIR) and adoption of mitigation measures.

The guidelines also required a community risk assessment to determine potential health impacts on new project residents for any project proposed within 1,000 feet of existing pollution sources, including most freeways, major roads, and transportation corridors.  This represented a departure from the traditional CEQA analysis, which examines a project’s impacts on the surrounding environment rather than the other way around.

The California Building Industry Association (CBIA) sued, arguing that the thresholds conflicted with California's climate change goals, e.g., those found in SB 375 that encourage infill and transit-oriented development.  Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch ordered the BAAQMD to withdraw the thresholds until it studied their potential environmental impacts, including their potential effect on future development in the region.

The Appeals Court rejected CBIA’s arguments that the thresholds themselves were legally invalid, and upheld the limits on single source and cumulative toxic air contaminants.  While the thresholds are not legally binding on other San Francisco Bay Area agencies, they are widely used by cities and counties in evaluating projects for CEQA purposes. Many remain concerned that stricter emission standards for GHGs and health risks will make it difficult to develop infill projects near existing pollution sources such as freeways and transit.  Opponents assert that the numeric standards are so low that even transit villages planned adjacent to Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train lines would be unable to avoid a significant impact finding for GHG emissions.

Read a detailed summary of the Appeals Court ruling from Wendel Rosen Black & Dean LLP.