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California Environmental Quality Act

Daily Journal, August 29, 2008

Group Targets State Licensing of Power Plant
By Fiona Smith

Environmentalists have opened a new front in their battle to fight climate change in California by seeking to force the state to address the greenhouse gas emissions from power plants before it licenses them.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Earthjustice petitioned on Thursday to intervene in the licensing process of a proposed gas-fired power plant in the city of Carlsbad, north of San Diego. The groups say the California Energy Commission, which licenses all large power plants, is failing to look at the greenhouse gas emissions of the 558-megawatt plant in its environmental review.

"Despite California's mandate to aggressively reduce greenhouse gases, the California Energy Commission is allowing new power plants to be built without evaluating their impacts on climate change," Will Rostov, an attorney with Earthjustice, said in a written statement. "The energy commission needs to champion clean energy by making sure new energy sources reduce harm to the climate."

As part of its approval process, the commission must assess the environmental impacts of new power plants and require mitigation for significant impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act.

By intervening, the environmental groups will be able to participate in the commission's evidentiary hearings on the project, allowing the groups to request information, cross-examine witnesses and bring in others to testify, said Percy Della, a spokesman for the energy commission.

Environmental groups also hope the intervention will create a precedent that will affect all other power plant approvals before the commission, Rostov said.

While the Center for Biological Diversity has seized on state's environmental quality law to try to force cities and counties to slash greenhouse gas emissions from big development projects, this is the first time it has used it to take on a power plant.

Current law does not specify how CEQA environmental reviews should handle greenhouse gas emissions but the state Office of Planning Research is currently crafting guidelines.

Despite the lack of legal clarity on the issue, the center has scored some victories in its efforts: It gained concessions after challenging San Bernardino County's general plan, and a Riverside County judge this month threw out the environmental review of a massive residential-commercial development in Desert Hot Springs for failing to take greenhouse gas emissions into account.

Thursday's move sends a signal to the energy commission that it could face a similar legal challenge under CEQA.

The proposed plant, dubbed the Carlsbad Energy Center Project, would be built on the site of the aging Encina Power Station, which is owned by New Jersey-based NRG Energy Inc. The project's official Web site touts the project's environmental benefits, saying the new state-of-the-art plant will emit 30 percent less greenhouse gases than the current one.

"Not only will the Carlsbad Energy Center Project help meet growing demand in the San Diego region, but the proposed units use new technology that is more efficient, resulting in a lower greenhouse gas- and overall- emissions profile," Lori Neuman, a spokeswoman for NRG Energy, said in a written statement.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton