Supreme Court Rules EPA Can Regulate GHG

By David L. Brown

The Supreme Court today ruled 5-4 that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles, and ordered the EPA to reconsider its policies on that issue. The majority opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens says that greenhouse gases (GHG) are pollutants and should be covered by the landmark Clean Air Act.

The lawsuit was filed by a consortium of 12 states and 13 environmental groups that were fed up with the Bush administration’s foot-dragging on climate change.

The court was asked to consider three questions: 1) Can states sue the EPA on its decision not to regulate CO2 emissions from automobiles; 2) Does the Clean Air Act give EPA the authority it needs to act; and 3) Does EPA have the right to refuse to regulate those emissions. The court ruled “yes” on the first two questions.
On the third question, according to the Associated Press report this morning:

…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 court’s decision is expected to give California a clearer path to gaining EPA approval of its program to limit emissions of GHG from automobiles. The state has taken a leading role in anti-pollution measures as part of its program to eliminate smog. Now it is seeking to limit GHG emissions as well.

The Supreme Court decision comes as climate change moves toward the front burner of political issues, and is welcome news for environmentalists and others who are concerned that the continued release of GHG into the atmosphere could lead to climate change events that could be catastrophic. The Bush administration has taken a wait-and-see attitude toward global warming, and in some respects has actually suppressed information about the issue. For example there have been attempts to muzzle NASA’s top climatologist James Hansen, who is a leading voice for action against potential global warming.

The bad news about the environment has been coming faster and faster. In recent months the National Research Council has concluded that global warming is real and human activity is a major cause. The Stern Report in England reached a similar conclusion, and the interim report from the International Panel on Climate Change, while muting the message, has also agreed. Al Gore’s many public appearances and his Oscar-winning documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth” have also had a significant impact on bringing these issues to the forefront.

Meanwhile, nay-sayers who have spoken against global warming find themselves with little upon which to stand, and even their financial supporters such as ExxonMobil are beginning to back away from their previous programs aimed at confusing the issue and suppressing any possible action. It seems that at last the worm is turning for climate change. Let us hope that the issue isn’t allowed to slide under the rug once again, and that some serious programs are launched to move the world toward a clean, sustainable energy model. It will be the greatest challenge ever undertaken by humanity, and perhaps the most important.

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