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‘Undevelopment’: A suitable option for addressing sea level rise in California

June 16, 2017

​​​By Sarah Reiter, Adjunct Faculty, Vermont Law School

T​he state of California continues to act as a pioneer when it comes to American climate change initiatives, in both the mitigation and adaptation spheres. In defiant opposition to President Trump’s stance on climate change, the California Air Resources Board recently voted to move ahead with strict emissions regulations, and the California Ocean Protection Council adopted a resolution to use a recent science report to update the State’s Sea Level Rise Guidance policies.

Nevertheless, the Coastal Commission—the state agency charged with protecting the coast—is marginalized when it comes to influencing the removal of critical infrastructure away from the shore. While state law is well-equipped to restrict new development and to protect existing habitat in the coastal zone, it is not designed to address a new paradigm of rising seas where former habitat could be restored in place of old and failing development.

Coastal power plants represent an excellent—but partially missed—opportunity for this type of undevelopment. California state regulations, which require the phase out of once-through-cooling practices used in many coastal power plants, provide the occasion to rethink whether power plants should be sited along the coast. There are many co-benefits associated with the removal of power plants from the coastline: reducing the vulnerability of energy infrastructure to impacts associated with climate change, increasing coastal habitat, all while maintaining the reliability of the power grid through generation capacity development elsewhere.

Nevertheless, there are some legal barriers that need to be addressed so that the Coastal Commission can move critical infrastructure away from an ever-changing coast. Undevelopment is a suitable response option for addressing sea level rise and related coastal hazards, and the legal research (click here​​ to read the article) explains just how to empower the Coastal Commission to deploy that response option. Doing so is essential to preserving California's iconic coastline and ensuring that the state’s critical energy, transportation, and water treatment infrastructure remain out of harm’s way. ​


Vermont Law School does not endorse or oppose any particular view or position on this matter. This blog should not be construed as the school’s endorsement of, or opposition to, any particular view on this subject.