Laura: Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us for ICF's webinar, talking about "Greenhouse Gas Emissions Analyses and Thresholds under the California Environmental Quality Act." My name is Laura Yoon, and I will be one of your speakers today. So, just some quick introductions. As I mentioned, my name is Laura Yoon, and I am a senior manager in ICF's environment and planning group.
This group within ICF provides environmental and planning services in energy, natural resource management, and transportation. We work with a variety of public and private sector clients to help plan and implement infrastructure improvements.
I've been with ICF for 10 years and help our clients evaluate potential air quality and greenhouse gas impacts during new project construction and use. I also develop strategies to help reduce air quality impacts that may be unacceptable under various state and federal laws, mainly CEQA and the National Environmental Policy Act.
I'm happy to be joined by Rich Walter, who is one of our vice presidents at ICF. Rich has over 24 years of experience in environmental planning, compliance, strategy, permitting, mitigation, and climate action planning. He works on a variety of controversial and complex projects, involving both federal and state environmental agencies, as well as regulatory permitting.
We’ll start the webinar off with an overview of recent CEQA case law and published agency guidance. This will help set the stage for how and why there has been so much development and scrutiny surrounding greenhouse gas analyses and thresholds. We'll then talk a little bit about greenhouse gas threshold options that have been used recently in project level CEQA documents and then shift our attention and introduce a few new threshold concepts that may be able to better navigate some of the challenges our existing thresholds have faced in light of recent case law.
A quick disclaimer before we get started. ICF is not a law firm, and the information we are presenting here today is based on our understanding of CEQA case law and relevant guidance as we have applied them as CEQA practitioners.
All right. Let's go ahead and get started, background and context. Here on this slide are two of our more significant CEQA cases we've seen in the past few years. The first case there, Newhall Ranch project, is a large mixed-use development project in Southern California.
The draft environmental impact report found that greenhouse gas impacts would be less than significant because the project would reduce emissions by more than 31%, relative to business-as-usual conditions. Now, business-as-usual or BAU, it's essentially a future emissions level that does not account for any reductions from state or project-specific actions.
EIR argued that the 30% reduction was more than what the state needs to achieve to meet its 2020 target under Assembly Bill 32, which is a 29% reduction. Centers for Biological Diversity challenged the project on a few things, the greenhouse gas thresholds being one of them.
The case made its way all the way to the Supreme Court who found that the EIR did not contain substantial evidence to justify that the level of emissions reductions needed at the state level would equally be required at the local or individual project level. A court decision also implied that new development may need to carry a heavier reduction burden or do better than the average reduction because of the contribution of emissions from existing sources, which will always remain.
And the next case, Golden Door Properties, is a more recent appellate decision out of San Diego County. Golden Door Properties challenged the county's 2016 CEQA guidelines, which recommended inefficiency threshold to evaluate project-level emissions. The county derived this threshold based on the state's emissions and socio-economic data.
Similar to what we saw with Newhall Ranch, the court held that the county did not provide substantial evidence adequately explaining how these thresholds derived from statewide data constituted inappropriate greenhouse gas metrics to use for all projects in San Diego County. So again, focusing in on the need to provide evidence and tailor thresholds to project conditions. And that's really the key takeaway from these cases.
There are many different and acceptable ways to evaluate the significance of project-level greenhouse gases in CEQA documents. The Supreme Court made this clear in Newhall Ranch. But any selected threshold must be appropriate for an individual project. It must be tailored to the local geography, applicable to the project type, and consider the fact that new development may need to do better than the statewide average reduction. And central to this thinking and justification, it says that three times on the slide, evidence, evidence, evidence, CEQA documents must connect the dots and show how and why a threshold is appropriate for a specific project.
The next two cases here deal with CEQA hearing and consistency analyses. Mission Bay Alliance, this was a challenge to the new Warrior Stadium in the city of San Francisco. The draft EIR found that the project would be consistent with the city's qualified climate action plan, and therefore, concluded greenhouse gas impacts would be less than significant without any specific emissions quantification.
Mission Bay Alliance challenged this qualitative-type analysis, but the court held that the city's consistency analysis was valid based on CEQA guidelines and also legal precedents, both of which recognized tiering from a qualified climate action plan as an acceptable method for evaluating project-level emissions.
The next case, City of Long Beach, deals with a new rail yard a few miles from the Port of Los Angeles. The draft EIR concluded that the project would have a significant impact on greenhouse gases because it would increase emissions relative to existing conditions. Now, interestingly, the EIR also found that the project would be consistent with state and local greenhouse gas reduction plans.
So there was a significant and unavoidable conclusion related to emissions but a less than significant finding related to plan consistency. A court acknowledged this and found that it was valid for the EIR to have a significant amount of emissions but still be consistent with state plans. In this case, the EIR appropriately separated the quantitative analysis where it identified a significant impact from the qualitative analysis where it found no inconsistency with state plans, encouraging more efficient good movements.
These are the last few cases here in our background section. Association of Irritated Residents, the first case there on the slide, challenged Kern County on an EIR for modifications to an existing oil refinery. This project was increasing the capacity and ultimately emissions associated with the facility.
But EIR found that greenhouse gas impacts would be less than significant because the refinery is a covered entity under the state's cap-and-trade program. Now, the court agreed with the EIR's analysis, noting that cap-and-trade is its approach to reducing cumulative greenhouse gases from certain industrial sources.
Rodeo Citizens Association is another refinery case. This project was proposing several modifications to a refinery that was improving efficiency and ultimately reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The modifications would also allow for the increased capture of various byproducts, like butane and propane, which could eventually be sold to downstream users.
Now, while the EIR quantified the decrease in facility operational emissions, it did not quantify any downstream emissions from the eventual combustion of the byproducts. Now, the court upheld the analysis, stating that the EIR did not need to quantify the downstream emissions as they would be speculative and outside of the county's control.
Finally, in Cleveland versus SANDAG, San Diego Association of Governments. This case deals with executive orders as CEQA threshold. SANDAG, EIR for their regional transportation plan, quantified greenhouse gas emissions under full bill in 2050 and found that those emissions would be significant because they would increase relative to baseline conditions.
Cleveland raised concern that SANDAG did not adopt the greenhouse gas production target from one of the state's executive orders, Executive Order S305, as an explicit CEQA threshold. But the court ultimately found that SANDAG, who is not a state agency, was not required to use the executive order as a CEQA threshold, and that their adopted 2050 threshold was justified and supported by evidence.
That’s the legal precedence. OPR, CARB, and a number of other agencies have also issued various guidance documents and regulations that influence how we evaluate greenhouse gas emissions in CEQA documents. Recently, OPR issued a discussion draft to address some common issues and questions that have arisen in CEQA greenhouse gas analyses.
This draft develops an interesting threshold concept that nests the project within the state's larger reduction framework but also identifies the key things they need to do on a sector-by-sector basis to demonstrate a less than significant finding, things like reducing vehicle miles traveled and avoiding fossil fuels. Rich will get into this a little bit more when he talks about the new CEQA threshold concepts later in the presentation.
The 2017 Climate Change Scoping Plan outlines the state's framework for meeting its greenhouse gas production target under Senate Bill 32. It relies heavily on existing state programs, like Title 24, the low carbon fuel standard, and cap-and-trade.
Similar to the original Assembly Bill 32 Scoping Plan, it highlights the key role local governments and new development have in helping the state to meet its 2030 target. It specifically calls for stronger greenhouse gas production goals in the transportation sector and additional reductions in vehicle miles traveled. Now, this acknowledgment and focus on the transportation sector certainly emerged as a hot issue for CEQA.
Earlier this year, CARB released guidance elaborating on the nexus between VMT reduction and state climate change goals. In this document, they developed some VMT reduction targets for land-use development projects, which, again, Rich will talk a little bit more about later in the presentation. It's not shown here on the slide, but OPR has also released a related technical advisory that also establishes some similar per capita VMT reduction targets kind of hovering around the 15% reduction relative to a 2015, 2018 average.
The CEQA guidelines were also adopted this year to shift the focus of the transportation impact analysis really away from one of congestion and delay and onto vehicle miles traveled. This shift is important for greenhouse gas analyses because the new VMT concept better fits with state and local efforts to balance transportation management and greenhouse gas production.
As I mentioned on the last slide, the Climate Change Scoping Plan specifically notes that additional reductions in VMT are needed to meet the state's 2030 target. Now, using VMT as the transportation impact analysis metric better ensures that these VMT reductions will be achieved by on-the-ground development. I should mention quickly, there were some revisions to the greenhouse gas section, but these are really minor and just clarify the current state of practice.
All right. So that is the legal and regulatory backdrop for CEQA and greenhouse gas analyses. We’ll switch gears now and talk specifically about some common threshold concepts with respect to what we've learned through the case law review.
Before we jump into this, I wanted to give a quick overview of some of the terms that are commonly used to describe or inform thresholds. As I've mentioned in the presentation, the state has legislatively adopted two targets for 2020 and 2030. CEQA greenhouse gas thresholds are almost always based on these two state reduction targets.
But as we saw through the case law review, these targets are really just the starting point for project-level thresholds. Court decisions and agency guidance inform how these thresholds should be adjusted for project-specific circumstances.
Executive orders are directives issued by the governor that are only binding on state agencies. Executive orders can be more aggressive than legislatively-adopted targets. And we sometimes see executive order targets or similar goals eventually adopted through legislative action.
And then there's "science" there in air quotes. Science kind of serves as the backdrop to all of this. Science tells us what could happen if we don't do anything to reduce emissions. It also informs our understanding of what can be done. But science doesn't require the state or developer to really do anything. It provides the information for legislative action and reduction targets, those of which are implemented through regulation and policy.
So these next few slides are going to focus on threshold concepts that we are calling outside of the "safe harbor." These are thresholds that have been used to support many project levels, CEQA to termination, and may continue to be used in the future. But they may carry a little bit more risk than other threshold options because of recent court decisions that have created some unresolved questions.
The first of these threshold options is a mass emission threshold, which is also sometimes called a bright-line threshold. It identifies the level above which projects could contribute a significant amount of emissions and require mitigation.
A number of air districts throughout the state have adopted mass emission thresholds for both land-use development and stationary source projects. And the bright-line level is typically based on a gap or capture rate analysis.
For example, most of the initial or first-generation thresholds were set so that 90% of emissions from new development would be subject to mitigation review and potentially reduced. Now, these first-generation thresholds were all related to achieving the state's 2020 reduction target.
A couple of air districts have proposed updated mass emission threshold beyond 2020 that reflects the deeper reductions needed to meet the state's 2030 target under SB 32.
Mass emission thresholds, they're very appealing in concept. They define the maximum amount of emissions the project can generate. If you demonstrate that you're below it, you're less insignificant. If you're above it, you're potentially significant.
But where mass emission thresholds can get into trouble is if they're not backed by substantial evidence. We saw this in both the Newhall Ranch and the Golden Door decisions. The mass really has to be there to show how and why a capture rate of 90%, or 98%, or whatever else it is, how this rate and justification is appropriate at the local level for meeting state goals.
Efficiency thresholds are essentially a measure of a project's greenhouse gas emission's intensity or emissions per service population or per capita. They're based on the average emissions efficiency that must be achieved in order to meet AB 32 or SB 32 or another related target.
Now, similar to mass emission thresholds, efficiency metrics are very easy to use and appealing, particularly for larger land use development projects like specific plans and general plans, which may exceed a bright-line threshold purely due to their size but be extremely efficient.
Now, depending on how these thresholds are developed, they may run into problems in light of the Newhall Ranch and Golden Door decisions. For example, the defensibility of efficiency metrics calculated from the state's greenhouse gas inventory could be challenged if evidence isn't provided to justify how the state average is applicable to an individual project, given specific local circumstances. A threshold calculated from a local or regional emissions inventory is going to be on a little bit better footing here.
Another potential pitfall is accounting for project type. Most efficiency metrics are based on the land-use development sector as a whole, which considers emissions from all residential and commercial uses. These can sometimes be very different in terms of their emissions profile.
And finally, there's the new versus existing development issue. None of the efficiency thresholds that have been adopted isolate emissions for just new development. They're based on an inventory of emissions from new and existing development.
And this can potentially be an issue because, as we've heard from the courts, new development may need to do more than the average efficiency of existing and new land uses. Now, this type of tailoring for geography, project type, and new development, it can certainly be done if the data are available, but it's certainly a more comprehensive and complex analysis than we've seen in the past.
Consistency with the CARB Scoping Plan or really any and all state reduction plans. It's a qualitative proof of how state regulations and mandates fully capture and will reduce all emissions generated by a project consistent with AB 32 and SB 32.
Now, this type of threshold concept works well for projects with emissions fully covered by the Scoping Plan and other regulatory mandates, like covered entities subject to cap-and-trade. But this approach is not as defensible for other types of projects like land use development projects where the Scoping Plan itself recognizes a gap in reduction needed to meet its transportation goals and highlights the role of local government and new development in helping them to close this gap.
Also, some of the policies in the Scoping Plan are not yet backed by regulation or law. So, someone may argue that these reductions may never be achieved, leaving a hole in the project analysis. So with that, on the next slide here, I'll go ahead and turn things over to my co-presenter, Rich Walter, who is going to steer us towards land.
Rich: Okay, now we’re going to look at some of the things that, based on our assessment, appear to be relatively favorable in terms of the court rulings that have come out and in proceeding. And we've listed four of them here. We'll go through each one of them.
In turn, there's a net reduction in GHG emissions or zero emissions, consistency with the qualified GHG reduction plan, the climate action plan, and then coverage under cap-and-trade for certain regulated sources.
So, if your project is actually reducing GHG emissions, it's pretty slam-dunk to demonstrate that if you've got the backing and the good evidence that can support that relative to an appropriate baseline can be argued to have no impact on GHG emissions as far as CEQA.
And so some of the examples that we think of would be, you know, retrofitting of existing development or perhaps even replacement of existing development with more efficient development if it's not necessarily increasing the mass scale of it, such that you could show that the replacement is having less than your appropriate baseline.
Some neighborhood-serving projects. Sometimes we hear arguments that neighborhood-serving commercial or neighborhood-serving retail where people are going to someplace more distant might result in a net reduction of overall GHG emissions, such as new grocery store at a place where there aren't any.
You’ve got to be careful in terms of this, making sure that you have the backing of that analysis. In particular, you’re going to need to look at the VMT situation to make sure that you're using enough of a system analysis of VMT to see that you might actually have a net reduction when you take into account all project sources.
Transit projects are probably one of the easier ones to demonstrate some reductions compared to people driving solo in their car. So, various transit productions usually can show a net reduction there.
And then habitat and forest restoration projects could be resulting in increase in carbon sequestration, which is a good thing because that takes carbon out of the air and thus reduces the greenhouse gas net emissions. So those are all safe areas.
Zero net GHG emissions has gotten a bit of attention. Recently, the 2017 CARB's Scoping Plan talked about how they don't necessarily recommend this threshold. Some people say that, but what they said was that appears to be a good threshold.
They gave the example of the Newhall Ranch Project, which is their response to all the lawsuits that Laura described earlier, was they didn't want to come through and try a different threshold. So they went to a zero net GHG emissions threshold—this would be no net increase, and you would be reducing and/or offsetting all of the project-related emissions above a baseline.
Virtually, all projects, other than the net negative that we talked about, are going to result in some kind of emissions. You can reduce those on-site to a substantial extent through all the classic measures that you think of.
But we have found it to be very hard for most projects to actually reach zero net emissions with only on-site unless there was a really substantial sequestration component or the planting of a neighboring forest or something like that. So often, this means you’ll have to have off-site measures as well and/or the purchase of greenhouse gas offsets.
We also find that transportation GHG emissions are the toughest to mitigate for most new projects on-site. There's a limitation of what you can do. There's certain situations in transit-rich areas where you could do a lot. And certainly, some very large employers have had some very aggressive TDM sort of running their own shuttles and things like that where you may be able to effectively reduce those emissions with project-level mitigation as opposed to offsets.
Newhall Ranch is an example, and there are others that are out there, have used, on-site measures to get them perhaps half the way, perhaps a third of the way, and then purchase of offsets to get the remaining way. And Newhall was about 50/50, roughly speaking.
Consistency with a qualified greenhouse gas reduction plan. This has been mentioned in the Newhall Ranch ruling. It was also mentioned in the Mission Bay ruling and the Long Beach versus Los Angeles ruling as an acceptable way to go. It's one of the few that has a CEQA guideline section that specifically talks about the appropriateness of this.
The 15183.5 lays out the standards, which is to quantify the emissions, establish reduction targets, specify measures, establish monitoring and remedial measures if you're not on track. A qualified greenhouse gas reduction plan must be adopted in a public process following environmental review, meaning CEQA. So you have to do CEQA on the plan in order to be able to provide for a tiering opportunity.
We think that the Newhall and the Golden Door rulings will lead to greater scrutiny on targets and their relation to statewide targets, although that hasn't been a matter of court cases yet. There has been a case with the Sierra Club versus San Diego County, where a climate action plan was invalidated because of the finding of the court that some of the measures were not sufficiently enforceable or verifiable, as in they didn't meet all the usual tests for CEQA requirements for mitigation. So, the measures that you include in a qualified cap have to be real and verified and substantial.
And then under cap-and-trade, if a facility is directly regulated under cap-and-trade, as in it's a covered source, then, as has been upheld in Association of Irritated Residents versus Kern County, for a refinery specific that compliance with the cap-and-trade regulation can support is evidence that can be used to support a justification for a less than significant determination.
There is a debate out there that some people are engaging in about...the cap-and-trade, it applies to large stationary sources. It also applies to stationary sources associated with electricity generation and it also applies to transportation fuels.
Some people have argued that, well, since it applies to electricity and transportation fuels, then that should be able to apply kind of secondarily, not just to the directly regulated sources, but also to the indirectly influenced land-use development. That I would advise caution. That hasn't been proven.
California air resources more argue strenuously against this line of reasoning in a number of commentaries on some recent development projects where this idea has been put out. But if you are covered by cap-and-trade directly, then that is something that's been upheld in recent rulings.
So, if we've reviewed the things that we think are in the "safe harbor" and some that are outside of there, we want to look at some new approaches that could be employed if you can develop sufficient evidence.
And the first is essentially to get back up on the horse again after all these legal challenges that we've had and to look at a new and improved efficiency threshold approach that is similar to what's been done with efficiency thresholds before but would address the concerns raised in the Newhall Ranch and also in the Golden Door ruling in particular, and then combine that with the VMT threshold. That's one concept that we think has promise. And another is a sector-by-sector approach, and we’ll go through each one of these briefly.
Okay. The new and improved efficiency threshold approach. Since we now are in an era of SB 743 where we have to analyze VMT on the traffic, and VMT obviously is directly related to on-road emissions, one way that people have looked at this is to have a VMT threshold that is constructed in a way that addresses what you need to do under SB 743 but also relates to greenhouse gas impacts.
You have a VMT threshold that in essence, you can use for both VMT and for greenhouse gas emissions and that you evaluate VMT using that. OPR Technical Advisory is out there having some guidance of what OPR thinks is an appropriate threshold. There's a lot of discussions as everybody's winding up to apply this in CEQA. Some are applying 743 now. Everybody has to do it by July 1 of 2020.
There's also some discretion. For most projects, you're looking at a potential increase in VMT with those. Some transit projects might have no net increase or might actually reduce them.
But the CEQA guidelines do leave some discretion to the lead agency on roadway capacity projects as to what threshold they might use for VMT. So, depending on what you're using for your traffic analysis, you may be able to also use a VMT threshold for your greenhouse gas analysis.
So, there's some other specifics in SB 375 about where you can use some streamlining. If you're consistent for certain residential and mixed-use projects, those are in code. You can look at those as another avenue for dealing with the VMT side of greenhouse gases. And then there's some other concepts about VMT consistent with the Qualified Climate Action Plan as yet another way to deal with the VMT side.
On the efficiency side outside of on-road emissions, you can look at a framework for greenhouse gas emissions other than VMT. And presently, the AEP Climate Change Committee is looking at doing this and doing the analytical work of essentially taking apart the 2017 Scoping Plan to identify what the overall reduction expectations are for new development, not for all development, but for new development, and then to come up with a framework to apply that in a regional, local, county, city context to address some of the prior rulings to derive then an efficiency threshold for new development that has been adapted to a local or regional context.
We're looking at focusing only on new development. Mostly, we think we're going to demonstrate this in land-use development, which is, you know, the bulk of CEQA documents that are out there, identify the efficiency that would be appropriate for new land-use development, and then also to consider whether we might apply different thresholds for different types of projects, rather than one-size-fits-all.
Development other than land-use development could also do some kind of efficiency approach using statewide data but then adapting into the local and regional condition. That may be more challenging. At the AEP Climate Committee, which I sit on, we don't know yet whether this is going to work, to develop sufficient substantial evidence. And if it's viable, we plan to release a whitepaper on this by the end of 2019. So, stay tuned for that.
The other approach, other than continuing to you know, seek, if you will, some mathematical solutions with an efficiency threshold, would be to go sector by sector and to evaluate each sector qualitatively or quantitatively against the 2017 Scoping Plan to look at what the expectations are in the Scoping Plan relative to your type of development and then evaluate each sector by sector instead of some broader overall approach.
We talked about dealing with on-road VMT. That would be similar to this SB 743. In the building energy world, you could look at zero net energy for buildings. That would not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
OPR, in a discussion draft, brought out this idea of complying with Title 24 and having an all-electric building, such that, in the future, when we have 100% renewable electricity, that the development would not have greenhouse gas emissions in the future, even if now it did have some greenhouse gas emissions, because the utility or the electricity provider is still on a transition path toward the future of having a zero-emissions electricity.
Another possibility would be to get as close as possible to zero net energy. I think finding your way to zero net energy is going to be a really huge challenge for us, but then maybe combine that with some offsets for some of the things that would be for the emissions that you don't essentially get to zero net energy.
Zero waste is tough for any project. You might want to look at consistency with the 2030 goals for waste emissions. If you can offset all your waste, great, but again, there might be a role for offsets there as well.
The other sectors, you'd have to look at consistency with statewide fleet goals for off-road, consistency with water conservation requirements as we look forward, and then having no net loss of existing carbon sinks or sequestration. So, this analysis sector by sector doesn't necessarily need to end up with zero net greenhouse gas emissions, but over time, we think it's going to get closer and closer as we move further into kind of our abatement curve for greenhouse gas emissions.
And then finally, we want to hit a point on carbon offsets or greenhouse gas offsets as CEQA mitigation. The guidelines actually do mention this, very specifically, that off-site measures, including offsets that are not otherwise required, can be used to mitigate project emissions.
We think as we get with these tougher thresholds and tougher reduction targets that we're going to see more and more use of offsets. And that's what we've seen on very large projects. Newhall, we mentioned. This has often been used in some very large projects in San Diego County, as well. They've been reported offsetting up to 70% or 80% of their project emissions.
There's a lot of talk about offset emissions and some complexity about it. Sometimes people have said that offsets don't reduce greenhouse gas emissions and put out that idea.
That's only true if you have basically an invalid offset. If they are done properly...and they're not otherwise required or otherwise going to happen because of market conditions. And truly, the contribution of a project's money to pay for those offsets makes those offsets happen, and those offsets are real in the world and validated and permanent. They reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That's what the science tells us. You know, it's my personal hope that offsets continue to be a tool that can be used.
As far as climate change is concerned, it doesn't matter where they are location wise. There's a lot of debate about location of greenhouse gas emissions and that they should be very local to the project, and they shouldn't be...and if they're not local to the project, they should be in the region, or there should be in the state, you know, maybe in the U.S. but not somewhere off in the world.
From a climate change point of view, from science, that doesn't make any difference. It's the well-distributed gases in the atmosphere that come up with the greenhouse gas effect. So, offsets from that point of view can be anywhere.
But some fine print warnings here. There are some legal challenges on offsets. There's a very specific one in San Diego County about whether their offset's compliant with their climate action plan. It must be in the county or not in the county. That has some specifics on that.
There are policy questions about the location of offsets because some people want to advocate for having offsets be local because of the co-benefits, particularly related to environmental justice. If you have a community that suffered a lot of pollution, over time, they would like to see the offsets of that existing pollution.
When you fix carbon dioxide, you're often fixing some of the other health pollutants, you know, PM10 per se, but even some of the other emissions that would be out there. So, people want to do it. And no matter what offsets are used, they need to meet strict standards of additionality and be real, verifiable, and enforceable.
The challenges, the scrutiny, continues to be very high on greenhouse gas emissions. I've talked with a number of colleagues who are attorneys, CEQA attorneys, and they said this is still one of the number one things they see in challenges is on greenhouse gas. There are obviously others. But it's a really common element that it seems like every project brings to it when a lawsuit is being filed. Often they're throwing in greenhouse gases, no matter what.
I would love to tell you what actually constitutes substantial evidence, but that is very tough to read between the lines of the rulings that have come down. I think the courts have told us what they think does not constitute substantial evidence. We try to take practice from that to find out what not to do. But actually, what to do is going to continue to be something that will be a challenge for practitioners.
And then VMT emissions, I think, are going to be the toughest to reduce if you're outside the urban cores and transit areas. So particularly for suburban development and rural and ex-urban type development, I think finding ways to bring that VMT emissions down in line with these different thresholds concepts will be one of the most challenging things that you'll see on a project level.
But on the bright side, the court rulings still do not tell us to do one approach only, only that we must have evidence. And so there's still the ability to craft appropriate evidence-based conclusions under CEQA, and that authority still rests with the lead agency.
There are a lot of regulations that are in place and continuing. They help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for individual projects, and the projects will benefit from them in addition to the things that we would be doing as a form of litigation.
The feasibility of some of these reduction measures is improving. Particularly the price of solar has come down. The price of EV chargers has come down. So, some of those are going to be better for a proforma on a project level.
Offsets are currently affordable on the voluntary market for projects that want to use them. That could change over time but at present, affordable, relatively speaking. I mean, it's always, "This is an additional cost to projects." Don't take that lightly. But they're sitting in a realm that a lot of people who look at offsets think is probably undervalued compared to the social cost of carbon.
When I say that they're affordable, it's that relatively speaking they haven't gone to prices of $100 per ton, for example. A lot of the voluntary market is sitting at $2 to $7 or $10 a ton compared to some people who look at it and think that the price should be much, much, much, much higher.
And tiering from qualified climate action plan has been supported by multiple court rulings. It's a great way, if the city or county can get to it, to have a qualified plan. That's not an easy lift to do it, but it has been defended all the way up to the Supreme Court. So we think that that's going to continue to be an avenue for tiering for those jurisdictions that can get through it.