Sonoma County Climate Plan Lawsuit Explained

A case study of last year’s landmark lawsuit challenging Sonoma County’s Climate Action 2020 Plan was presented last week at the 2018 Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, Oregon.

The Public Interest Environmental Law Conference is the premier annual gathering for environmentalists worldwide, and is distinguished as the oldest and largest of its kind. The Conference historically unites more than 3,000 activists, attorneys, students, scientists, and concerned citizens from over 50 countries around the globe to share their experience and expertise. The Conference is organized solely by the volunteers of Land Air Water (LAW), a student environmental law society at the University of Oregon School of Law, and is co-sponsored by Friends of Land Air Water (FLAW), a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization.

Download the conference presentation (.PDF 1.5MB) >>

Case Background

In July 2017, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Nancy Case Shaffer in Santa Rosa ruled in favor of the Plaintiffs who argued that the plan failed to fully account for all the environmental impacts of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the County’s land use decisions. The suit argued that the plan violated various provisions of CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act.

Quoting from the 41-page ruling:

“The court finds that the Sonoma County Regional Climate protection Authority’s Final programmatic EIR (“the PEIR”) for Climate Action 2020 and Beyond, its Climate Action Plan (“CAP”) and the County of Sonoma”s approval of the CAP violate CEQA, in that the inventory of greenhouse gas emissions is based on insufficient information, the PEIR fails to include effectively enforceable, clearly defined performance standards for the mitigation measures regarding Green House gas (“GHG”) emissions, identified as “GHG reduction Measures”, and fails to develop and fully analyze a reasonable range of alternatives.”

Commenting on the ruling, lead attorney Jerry Bernhaut said, “The court’s ruling validates River Watch’s contentions that:

1. By failing to account for GHG emissions from global tourist travel and global distribution of wine and other Sonoma County products, the CAP grossly understated the true GHG emissions generated by activities in Sonoma County.

2. By failing to identify clear and enforceable reduction measures, the CAP failed to provide reasonable assurance that it’s program would result in the projected reduction of the County’s GHG emissions to below 1990 levels, as predicted in the CAP, or even to 1990 levels by 2020, consistent with AB32.

3. By refusing to evaluate an alternative involving a moratorium or any form of control of growth in tourist destinations and/or wine production, the CAP failed to consider environmentally superior alternatives which are necessary for any realistic hope of reducing Sonoma County’s contribution to global GHG emissions to levels required to avoid reaching tipping points for irreversible catastrophic global warming.”

Bernhaut added, “It’s time to admit that perpetual growth on a planet with limited resources and carrying capacity is not sustainable.”

Read More in The Sonoma Valley Sun >>

Read more in the Press Democrat >>

Read a statement from the Sierra Club Sonoma Group >>

Read Judge Shaffer’s 41-page Ruling >>