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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Supreme Court Rules On Mass V EPA; Rebukes Bush Administration on Decision Not to Regulate Carbon

EPA Has Authority Under Clean Air Act; Must Reexamine Decision Not to Regulate Carbon Dioxide

[Sorry for being late to the game on this one. I haven't had time to post in a few days. This is obviously big news! Here you go, from the AP/New York Times:]

The Supreme Court ordered the federal government on Monday to take a fresh look at regulating carbon dioxide emissions from cars, a rebuke to Bush administration policy on global warming.

In a 5-4 decision, the court said the Clean Air Act gives the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from cars.

Greenhouse gases are air pollutants under the landmark environmental law, Justice John Paul Stevens said in his majority opinion.

The court's four conservative justices -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- dissented.

Many scientists believe greenhouse gases, flowing into the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate, are leading to a warming of the Earth, rising sea levels and other marked ecological changes.

The politics of global warming have changed dramatically since the court agreed last year to hear its first global warming case.

"In many ways, the debate has moved beyond this," said Chris Miller, director of the global warming campaign for Greenpeace, one of the environmental groups that sued the EPA. "All the front-runners in the 2008 presidential campaign, both Democrats and Republicans, even the business community, are much further along on this than the Bush administration is."

Democrats took control of Congress last November. The world's leading climate scientists reported in February that global warming is "very likely" caused by man and is so severe that it will "continue for centuries." Former Vice President Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth -- making the case for quick action on climate change -- won an Oscar. Business leaders are saying they are increasingly open to congressional action to reduce greenhouse gases emissions, of which carbon dioxide is the largest.

Carbon dioxide is produced when fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas are burned. One way to reduce those emissions is to have more fuel-efficient cars.

The court had three questions before it.

  • Do states have the right to sue the EPA to challenge its decision?

  • Does the Clean Air Act give EPA the authority to regulate tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases?

  • Does EPA have the discretion not to regulate those emissions?

  • The court said yes to the first two questions. On the third, it ordered EPA to re-evaluate its contention it has the discretion not to regulate tailpipe emissions. The court said the agency has so far provided a "laundry list" of reasons that include foreign policy considerations.

    The majority said the agency must tie its rationale more closely to the Clean Air Act.

    "EPA has offered no reasoned explanation for its refusal to decide whether greenhouse gases cause or contribute to climate change," Stevens said. He was joined by his liberal colleagues, Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter, and the court's swing voter, Justice Anthony Kennedy.

    The lawsuit was filed by 12 states and 13 environmental groups that had grown frustrated by the Bush administration's inaction on global warming.

    In his dissent, Roberts focused on the issue of standing, whether a party has the right to file a lawsuit.

    The court should simply recognize that redress of the kind of grievances spelled out by the state of Massachusetts is the function of Congress and the chief executive, not the federal courts, Roberts said.

    His position "involves no judgment on whether global warming exists, what causes it, or the extent of the problem," he said.

    The decision also is expected to boost California's prospects for gaining EPA approval of its own program to limit tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases. Federal law considers the state a laboratory on environmental issues and gives California the right to seek approval of standards that are stricter than national norms.

    The case is Massachusetts v. EPA, 05-1120.

    My friends over at Energista posted a good analysis of this landmark decision. I'll refer you to the Energista post for more, rather than duplicate their effort.

    Here's a summary of the ruling's implications:
    I want to first note that the Supreme Court has not ruled that the EPA must regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs). The EPA must reconsider its decision not to regulate them. Regardless of what happens next, no one expects it to happen quickly. I doubt if anyone expects the Bush Administration to move on this issue before leaving office.

    More importantly, the next administration will enter office with an understanding that the EPA has the authority to regulate GHGs. This may not be the best way to regulate them but it will be an option. Most importantly, this case removes a hurdle from California's efforts to develop a forward-looking energy policy (hat tip to MoJo Blog for reminding me of this). The Supreme Court, speaking with a split voice, has now resolved the question of whether the Clean Air Act (CAA) allows for greenhouse gas regulation. It does. A ruling in the opposite direction would have opened many of California's new energy initiatives to challenge.
    As Christopher notes, while this ruling will likely have no tangible effect on the Bush Administration's "do nothing" stance on Global Warming, it has important other consequences.

    In particular, this is great news for California, Oregon, Massachusetts and other states that have enacted auto emissions standards for greenhouse gases and are currently facing a court challenge from the auto industry and the Bush Administration. This seems to spell the end of that court challenge. Implementation of the new tailpipe emissions standards has been stalled, pending court decisions.

    As Joseph Romm of Climate Progress writes:
    In 2002, California passed AB32, or the Pavley law, setting standards for automobiles (starting model year 2009) that would cut emissions 30%. The decision was approved by the California Air Resources Board but was put on hold when car industry leaders filed a claim against the state’s authority. (Both Grist and the New York Times go into a little bit more detail.)

    The California judge has been delaying his decision in anticipation of Supreme Court’s ruling, and similar cases are pending in several states across the Union. Now that the ruling has been made, their decisions are expected to rapidly fall in sync.

    How does this translate into action? Well, it doesn’t necessarily. It means that states wanting automobile emission standards more strict than those set by the federal government are allowed to pursue them. So it removes an obstacle. They have to receive a waiver from the EPA, but are now more likely to be granted one. States do not have to act, but ones that want to, will (and have).
    This will also bolster Congress' efforts to enact comprehensive climate change legislation. As Romm continues:
    It also may fare well for climate legislation. For example, Sen. Dingell (D-Mich.), who has always kept Detroit’s auto interests a priority, said about the verdict: “Today’s ruling provides another compelling reason why Congress must enact, and the president must sign, comprehensive climate change legislation.”
    All in all, great news!

    [Photo Credit: US Supreme Court website]

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