The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) (Public Resources Code section 21000 et seq.) requires public agencies to consider the potential impacts to the environment that may arise from the approval of “projects.” The project here includes demonstration of a bench-scale non-thermal plasma reactor powered by renewable electricity at an existing facility in Southern California Gas Company—a natural gas investor-owned utility—service territory. On August 8, 2019, this facility received a Notice of Exemption (2019088026) from the Department of Toxic Substances Control. The permit allows the continued operations for a 10-year term with no expansion of use or physical alteration.
CEQA exempts certain projects from its provisions. One such exemption, found at California Code of Regulations, title 14, section 15301, provides that projects which consist of the operation, repair, maintenance, permitting, leasing, licensing, or minor alteration of existing public or private structures, facilities, mechanical equipment, or topographical features, and which involve negligible or no expansion of use are exempt. The proposed project will be located entirely within a facility that already exists and that have the ability to operate through 2029. The proposed project will not expand the use of the facility because the project activities to design, fabricate, commission, and test the bench-scale system are in line with normal activities at the existing facility. Therefore, the project falls within section 15301 and will not have a significant effect on the environment.
CEQA also exempts projects that consist of basic data collection, research, experimental management, and resource evaluation activities which do not result in a serious or major disturbance to an environmental resource. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 14, § 15306). The proposed project will involve research to scale up an early-stage, lab-scale, catalytic non-thermal plasma reactor to a modular, bench-scale system that can cost-effectively convert biogas into low-carbon hydrogen and virtually eliminate the negative environmental impacts associated with Steam Methane Reforming to fabricate and produce hydrogen. This work will not result in a serious or major disturbance to an environmental resource because the system is expected to perform for at least 300 hours and produce up to 5 kilograms of hydrogen per day by project conclusion, which is small in comparison to the overall facility footprint. Additionally, the system will achieve a purity of 99.99 percent so there is no possibility of harmful emissions. For these reasons, the proposed project will have no significant effect on the environment and is categorically exempt under section 15306.
CEQA’s exemptions are not absolute. Once a public agency, like the CEC, believes that a project may be exempt from environmental review, it must consider whether there are any exceptions that may preclude use of the exemption. The circumstances giving rise to an exception are listed in California Code of Regulations, title 14, section 15300.2. The proposed project does not involve any cumulative impacts of successive projects of the same type in the same place that might be considered significant; does not involve unusual circumstances that might have a significant effect on the environment; will not result in damage to scenic resources within a highway officially designated as a state scenic highway; the project site is not included on any list compiled pursuant to Government Code section 65962.5; and the project will not cause a substantial adverse change in the significance of a historical resource. Therefore, none of the exceptions to categorical exemptions listed in CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2 apply to this project. Therefore, for the reasons stated above, this project is exemption from environmental review under CEQA.