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Supreme Court Rules EPA Can Regulate Greenhouse Gases

Published by MAC on 2007-04-02

Supreme Court Rules EPA Can Regulate Greenhouse Gases

By J.R. Pegg (ENS)


2nd April 2007

The Bush administration failed to follow the requirements of the Clean Air Act when it refused to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today. The 5-4 decision in Massachusetts v EPA orders the administration to reconsider its decision, a move that could result in the first nationwide regulations aimed at tackling emissions linked to global warming.

"EPA can no longer hide behind the fiction that it lacks any regulatory authority to address the problem of global warming," said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.

"The agency cannot refuse to use its existing authority to regulate dangerous substances simply because it disagrees that such regulation would be a good idea."

Although the ruling only forces EPA to reconsider whether it should set greenhouse gas emission standards for new cars and trucks, Coakley said, it would be difficult for the agency "to refuse such regulation once it applies legally permissible factors."

Justice John Paul Stevens, appointed to the bench by President Gerald Ford in 1975, wrote the majority opinion stating that EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo courtesy Supreme Court)

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters the administration was reviewing the decision, which she said was about a legal question, not about policy.

"Now the Supreme Court has settled that matter for us, and we're going to have to take a look and analyze it and see where we go from there," Perino said.

The dispute stretches back to 1999, when environmentalists filed a petition calling on EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles.

The Bush administration denied the petition in 2003, claiming carbon dioxide is not a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and that EPA lacked authority under the statute to impose regulations. In addition, the administration said that even if EPA had such authority, the agency would not set greenhouse gas emission standards for new vehicles because of scientific uncertainty and conflicts with the administration's policy of voluntary programs.

A dozen states and 13 environmental groups filed suit challenging the decision. Ten states and several automobile trade groups sided with EPA in the dispute.

The Supreme Court's review of the case centered on two critical issues - whether the states had standing to pursue the lawsuit and the scope of EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act.

The majority determined that Massachusetts, the lead plaintiff, had standing because sufficient scientific evidence shows the state faces harm from rising sea levels caused by global warming.

"The risk of catastrophic harm, though remote, is nevertheless real," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. "That risk would be reduced to some extent if petitioners received the relief they seek."

The administration argued against standing, contending that Massachusetts was unlikely to get relief from rising sea levels if EPA regulated greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. motor vehicles because global warming is the result of emissions from across the world.

"Its argument rests on the erroneous assumption that a small incremental step, because it is incremental, can never be attacked in a federal judicial forum," Stevens wrote. "Yet accepting that premise would doom most challenges to regulatory action. Agencies, like legislatures, do not generally resolve massive problems in one fell regulatory swoop."

The majority said it had "little trouble" rejecting the administration's argument that the Clean Air Act did not provide EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenhouse gases are pollutants under the law, Stevens said, and EPA's "alternative basis for its decision - that even if it has statutory authority to regulate greenhouse gases, it would be unwise to do so at this time - rests on reasoning divorced from the statutory text."

The law explicitly states that EPA can avoid regulations only if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change or if it provides some reasonable explanation as to why it cannot or will not exercise its discretion to determine whether they do, according to the majority.

EPA has done neither, Steven wrote, and instead "has offered a laundry list of reasons not to regulate."

Those reasons, including existence of voluntary programs to address greenhouse gas emissions and foreign policy considerations, have nothing to do with the requirements of the Clean Air Act, the court said.

"EPA has offered no reasoned explanation for its refusal to decide whether greenhouse gases cause or contribute to climate change," wrote Stevens, who was joined in the majority with Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter.

The four conservative members of the court dissented, largely on grounds of whether the states had standing in the case.

"The realities make it pure conjecture to suppose that EPA regulation of new automobile emissions will likely prevent the loss of Massachusetts coastal land," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his dissent.

The goals of the plaintiffs "may be more symbolic than anything else," Roberts wrote. "The constitutional role of the courts, however is to decide concrete cases - not serve as a convenient forum for policy debates."

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote his own dissent, saying the court had "no business substituting is own desired outcome for the reasoned judgment of the responsible agency."

Environmentalists hailed the decision as a turning point for U.S. global warming policy - the case is the first centered on global warming heard by the court.

"The prospect that EPA will act under today's Clean Air Act may light a fire under some industries that have been standing in the way," said David Doniger, NRDC's attorney in the case. "We've now broken a major legal logjam on this issue, and this will be the year that the political logjam is broken, too."

The decision could also have significant implications on other related cases, in particular a lawsuit filed by automakers seeking to block a California law that puts limits on greenhouse gas emissions from cars. The law, currently subject to a temporary injunction, has been adopted by nine other states.

"The Bush administration should immediately give California and other states the green light to put their clean cars programs into effect," said Amy Figdor of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "Any delay is completely unjustified given today's ruling."

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