Through the Clean Air Act.
Supreme Court: EPA can regulate vehicle emissions
By Joan Biskupic, USA TODAY
By a bitterly divided vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that the Environmental Protection Agency has authority to regulate vehicle emissions that cause global warming.
In a major victory for environmentalists, the justices rejected the Bush administration arguments that any limits on new cars and trucks would be incremental at best and not help solve the nation's pollution problems related to increased carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
"Today's ruling is a watershed moment in the fight against global warming," said Carl Pope, Sierra Club's executive director.
"The ruling is a total rejection of the Bush administration's refusal to use its existing authority to meet the challenge posed by global warming. … It also vindicates the leadership that California and other states have taken on this issue," he said.
The overall tone of the 5-4 decision, written by the liberal wing of the court, showed concern for global warming and respect for the worries voiced by Massachusetts and other states about diminished coast line and other atmospheric problems associated with warmer temperatures.
The Bush administration had said that those concerns — brought before the justices by 12 states, three cities and several public health and environmental groups — did not merit federal court intervention. The administration also argued that the agency lacked the authority to regulate air pollutants associated with climate change under the Clean Air Act.
"The EPA has offered no reasoned explanation for its refusal to decide whether greenhouse gases cause or contribute to climate change," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.
While the court stopped short of saying that the EPA must actually limit vehicle emissions, it also said "the EPA can avoid taking further action 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."
Joining Stevens in the majority were Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, along with swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy. (Stevens was not on the bench today and Kennedy read the opinion for the majority.)
The opinion prompted caustic dissents from Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. During oral arguments last November, Roberts and Scalia had particularly questioned the dangers of global warming.
Stevens' opinion for the majority in its first case on greenhouse gases opened with a reference to the link between "a well-documented rise in global temperature" and the "significant increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere." He emphasized that "respected scientists believe the two trends are related."
Emily Figdor, clean air and energy advocate for U.S. PIRG, one of the groups that had helped bring the case, called the decision "a major turning point in our nation's fight to protect future generations from global warming."
Dave McCurdy, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said his group "believes that there needs to be a national, federal, economy-wide approach to addressing greenhouse gases. This decision says that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will be part of this process."
There were two overriding questions for the justices to answer.
The EPA had argued that Massachusetts and the other states lacked legal "standing" to bring the case because they could not show that any specific potential injury from the agency's refusal to issue emission standards for new cars and trucks.
Stevens said Massachusetts had clearly made the case for an injury. He noted that there was evidence that global sea levels rose 10 to 20 centimeters over the 20th century as a result of global warming: "If sea levels continue to rise as predicted, one Massachusetts official believes that a significant fraction of coastal property will be either permanently lost through inundation or temporarily lost through periodic storm surge and flooding events."
Stevens noted that EPA had argued that any U.S. regulation of greenhouse gas emissions would be foiled by continued emissions in developing nations, particularly China and India. He said the EPA overstated its case. "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," and as a result the states would lack standing.
The second question was whether the EPA properly exercised its authority in declining to issue emission standards for new vehicles. The court said no. The Stevens majority stressed that the definition or "air pollution" in the Clean Air Act covers greenhouse gases. (A provision of the act requires regulation of "any air pollutant" from vehicles that "may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare." The act defines "welfare" to include effects on "climate" and "weather.")
The court said the EPA ignored its statutory mandate and had not provided sufficient grounds for not issuing emissions standards.
"EPA no doubt has significant latitude as to the manner, timing, content, and coordination of its regulations. … (But) its reasons for action or inaction must conform to the authorizing statute," the court ruled. "Under the clear terms of the Clean Air Act, EPA can avoid taking further action 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."
The EPA had argued that even if it had the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, it would not for domestic and foreign policy reasons. Stevens said the reasons offered "have nothing to do with whether greenhouse gas emissions contribute to climate change. … Still less do they amount to a reasoned justification for declining to form a scientific judgment."
Roberts, in his dissenting opinion, said that the states lacked standing. He said the majority "ignores the complexities of global warming."
Scalia, joined by the others in dissent, wrote, "The court's alarm over global warming may or may not be justified, but it ought not distort the outcome of this litigation. … No matter how important the underlying policy issues at stake, this court has no business substituting is own desired outcome for the reasoned judgment of the responsible agency."