A California court ruling suspending the implementation of the state's landmark climate change law came with a large dose of irony.
That's because San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Ernest Goldsmith found that the state had failed to comply with another landmark law, one that is beloved by some of the same environmental groups that are critical of the ruling, the California Environmental Quality Act.
Essentially, a major environmental initiative is under threat because the state failed to correctly carry out the appropriate environmental analysis.
Or, as Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law & Policy Center at University of California, Davis, put it, "one of California's two most important environmental laws has been stymied -- at least temporarily -- by the other."
The new law, A.B. 32, includes a provision that sets up a cap-and-trade market for carbon, which environmental justice groups oppose because they believe it will have a negative impact on minority groups. They challenged the California Air Resources Board in court on multiple grounds.
Goldsmith ruled March 18 that the board had abused its authority by not doing enough analysis on alternatives to cap and trade and by failing to fully complete the environmental review process. In doing so, it had failed to comply with CEQA (ClimateWire, March 22).
ARB said late last week it would appeal the ruling while simultaneously revising its CEQA analysis in accordance with Goldsmith's concerns. The law is due to go into effect Jan. 1, 2012.
The case effectively pits mainstream environmental groups that support the law, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council, against environmental justice advocates represented by the San Francisco-based Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment.
It is part of a trend in recent years for environmental interests to splinter between those in favor of broader policy shifts on such issues as climate change and renewable energy and those that focus on the impact those changes would have on individual communities.
The center's legal director, Alegría De La Cruz, seems to relish the fact that the court had poked holes in the ARB's environmental analysis and that more mainstream environmental groups were stuck defending the government's position.
The case had exposed that ARB has a "funny process" for conducting CEQA review that was "an erroneous interpretation of the law," she added.
De La Cruz said Goldsmith's ruling that finds fault with ARB's CEQA procedure is likely to have a lasting impact that could help A.B. 32 supporters like the NRDC in future cases when they are challenging a government action they do not like.
"And we will be proud," she said.
Perhaps not surprisingly, lawyers from the other environmental groups are not keen on discussing the CEQA aspect of the case.
Timothy O'Connor, a San Francisco-based lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund, declined to be drawn out on whether the court's CEQA analysis was correct.
He said he believes the necessary information is in the record to support the board's finding but conceded that Goldsmith did not believe it had been incorporated into the CEQA analysis.
"Regardless of whether they did do enough or didn't, the important thing is that the state be allowed to move forward," he said.
O'Connor stressed that all environmental groups have an interest in ensuring that the government takes into account alternative policy choices as is required under CEQA.
"That's very important," he said. "What we have heard from ARB is that they have a commitment to making sure that the requirements of CEQA are met."
Alex Jackson, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the plaintiffs, who he says NRDC has a "strong relationship with," were "certainly entitled" to challenge the program under CEQA.
The fact that NRDC is in a position where it is supportive of a court ruling in which the court found flaws in the government's analysis similar to cases the the group might normally be on the other side of should not lead observers to jump to any conclusions, Jackson added.
"We have a strong commitment to CEQA," he said. "We would not like to see that undermined in any context."