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BAAQMD District GHG Thresholds of Significance Will Have Wide Impact

By Jonathan W. Redding

[Originally published as a Wendel Rosen Client Update, September 17, 2009.]

On September 4, 2009, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) released proposed thresholds of significance for greenhouse gas (GHG) analysis of potential adverse environmental impacts and mitigation under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). If these thresholds are adopted at the upcoming BAAQMD board meeting set for October 21, 2009, as anticipated, or at a meeting shortly thereafter, proponents of projects throughout the nine Bay Area counties regulated by BAAQMD will be required to undertake new and expensive environmental analysis and perhaps, provide mitigation for even small projects. For example, high traffic-generating development projects of just 1,000 square feet will likely be covered by the new policy and deemed significant for the amount of GHG generated by their "operations," which include the emissions of all automobiles and trucks of the project’s employees, residents, customers and clients. The threshold levels of GHG emissions BAAQMD proposes to adopt (1100 metric tons of GHG per year for any single development project), is the lowest or most sensitive level of GHG emissions it considered. (1)

What do these thresholds mean?  In brief, based on BAAQMD's modeling, the following types of developments with equal or greater square footage or other occupancy characteristics than listed in the excerpted table below are likely to have GHG emissions that BAAQMD deems significant:


Land Use Type   Screening Size Level (2)
Fast food restaurants     1,000 sq. ft
Convenience markets     1,000 sq. ft.
Bank branches (w/drive thru)     3,000 sq. ft.
High turnover restaurants     7,000 sq. ft.
Supermarkets    8,000 sq. ft.
Pharmacies/drugstores    10,000 sq. ft.
Day care centers    11,000 sq. ft.
Strip malls/shopping centers    19,000 sq. ft.
Medical offices    22,000 sq. ft.
Health clubs    24,000 sq. ft.
Hospitals    39,000 sq. ft.
General offices    53,000 sq. ft.
Single family residential    56 dwelling units
Apartment low rise    78  dwelling units

If these thresholds are adopted, a project proponent, with a project exceeding the above-listed thresholds has four primary options: (1) perform an expensive analysis to establish the project is below the adopted thresholds; (2) apply technologies or best management practices to mitigate GHG emissions below significance thresholds; (3) purchase verifiable offsets or reduction credits to the extent allowed by law; or, (4) provide information to support the lead agency finding that it is impossible to mitigate the project's impacts and adoption of a Statement of Overriding Considerations. In the fourth scenario, they will need to explain why the public benefits of the project outweigh the significant and unavoidable adverse impacts associated with the project. 

The first three options above might be done through a negative declaration or a mitigated negative declaration. The fourth option listed above, and possibly the third option, will require the preparation of an expensive Environmental Impact Report.

There is fifth option for project proponents located in jurisdictions that have a Climate Action Plan or Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan, provided the plan has been subject to CEQA scrutiny and contains enforceable mitigation measures for reducing the GHG emissions to attain the jurisdiction’s AB 32 GHG targets. In these jurisdictions, a project that increase GHG emissions above the thresholds, may be deemed to not have a significant impact if the project is consistent with a jurisdiction's Climate Action Plan. For more information on this strategy, see the article “Getting Your Project Approved.” This is likely the case for dense urban infill projects consistent with approved Sustainable Communities Strategies developed pursuant to SB 375.

No matter how you, as a developer (or as an environmental consultant), choose to deal with the ever increasing scrutiny and intensifying public regulations and demand for reduction of GHG emissions, you should recognize that BAAQMD’s CEQA thresholds of significance guidelines will be used, even if not locally adopted, by many city and county jurisdictions in the Bay Area.  And, even if these standards are not adopted by other land use approving entities, the Attorney General or an environmental citizen group may use them as the basis for CEQA comment to support a claim that the agency failed to properly analyze the project impacts or properly mitigate them, etc.


(1) In contrast, the draft rule considered in Southern California contains a GHG significance thresholds nearly three times the BAAQMD level or 3,000 metric tons per year.

(2) In generating these screening levels of significance for GHG, staff supported the AB 32 GHG reduction goals by establishing a CEQA threshold of significance policy consistent with legislative mandates to reduce GHG generation by 20% by the year 2020. BAAQMD projected GHG emissions within the Bay Area must be reduced by 2 million metric tons per year (2MMT).  How BAAQMD arrived at this total needed reduction is quite complex and subject to debate.  In broad terms, BAAQMD used databases to project increases in jobs and population and the number and types of projects in the Bay Area.  Based on that input, BAAQMD used computer models to generate the amounts of GHG emissions that such projects would cause.  Combining this information with anticipated reductions from mandatory measures under the AB 32 Scoping Plan, BAAQMD arrived at the above individual screening levels (or really maximum allowable GHG emissions) for specific types of projects.  For more details on how this methodology was established, see the PowerPoint presentation CEQA: Straight From The Source” presentation by BAAQMD.