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California to Appeal Superior Court Decision to Halt Carbon Market

On May 20, 2011, San Francisco Superior Court judge Ernest Goldsmith issued a decision requiring the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to halt action on implementing its planned emissions cap-and-trade program until it has explored alternatives to meet California’s emission reduction targets. The decision follows a ruling delivered in March 2011 in which the judge said CARB had violated the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to adequately assess alternative emission reduction mechanisms, such as a carbon tax. The ruling is the result of legal action brought by the Association for Irritated Residents and other environmental justice groups, which argued that the proposed cap-and-trade program could damage air quality in some parts of the state.

The cap-and-trade program is part of AB 32 (Global Warming Solutions Act), California’s landmark climate change law, which is designed to lower California’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. AB 32 also includes increased fuel efficiency standards and a renewable electricity target of 33% by 2020. Under the ruling, CARB must set aside its December 2010 decision approving the trading system for emitters over 25,000 metric tons per year, and must cease all rule-making and implementation activities related to cap-and-trade until it complies with the law. In particular, the judge said that CARB must go back and show why it made the decision to implement cap-and- trade. The trading program is designed to cover 85 percent of the state’s industrial emissions by 2020 and would include emissions from power plants, oil and gas refineries, transportation fuels and other heavy industries.

On May 23rd, California’s top attorney initiated an appeal of Judge Goldsmith’s decision. Depending on the length of the appeal process, the cap-and-trade program could be delayed, perhaps until 2013. In the meantime, California can continue with its renewable energy targets, low-carbon fuel standard and energy efficiency measures, all of which are unaffected by the judge’s ruling.