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June 24, 2014
Supreme Court Upholds EPA Authority to Regulate Greenhouse Gas Emissions
    by Robert Kropp

The Court's ruling allows the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from sources whose conventional pollutants are already being regulated.

Lacking Congressional acknowledgement of the severity of climate change effects and the need to retool the nation's energy systems in response, President Obama has turned to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for regulatory action to address the crisis. Earlier this month, for example, EPA proposed rules that would substantially reduce carbon emissions from the power sector.

The US Chamber of Commerce and other industry trade groups have used their deep pockets to seek legal opinions to deny EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the energy industry. One such challenge was decided by the US Supreme Court this week, when it ruled that the Agency had the authority to regulate GHG emissions from power plants. However, the Court limited that authority to instances when so-called conventional pollutants were already regulated.

Justice Antonin Scalia summarized the 7-2 decision from the bench, stating, "EPA is getting almost everything it wanted in this case. It sought to regulate sources it said were responsible for 86% of all the greenhouse gases emitted from stationary sources nationwide. Under our holdings, EPA will be able to regulate sources responsible for 83% of those emissions."

EPA itself has acknowledged that interpreting the Clean Air Act as written to regulate GHG emissions from all sources would impose a burdensome impact throughout the nation's economy. Therefore, the Agency sought to establish thresholds so that the largest emitters of GHGs could be regulated. This, Scalia argues in his decision, amounted to a rewriting of provisions of the act and was beyond the Agency's authority.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is a win for our efforts to reduce carbon pollution because it allows EPA, states and other permitting authorities to continue to require carbon pollution limits in permits for the largest pollution sources,” the Agency stated.

David Doniger, director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), stated, "The Court has upheld the requirement that big new industrial facilities must use the best available control technology to curb all air pollutants, including the carbon pollution that drives climate change. The decision builds on the Court’s prior decisions upholding most important Clean Air Act authority in the fight against global warming – EPA’s responsibility to set national standards to curb the carbon pollution emitted by automobiles and power plants."

"The EPA has just proposed standards to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, and that critical work will move ahead to protect Americans from the worst impacts of climate change," Doniger continued.

Vera Pardee of the Ce nter for Biological Diversity stated, "The EPA clearly has the authority to fight carbon pollution, and now we need swift action ambitious enough to actually fight the climate crisis."

The Chamber of Commerce chose to focus on the Court's apparent limitations on EPA's authority in a statement by President and CEO Thomas Donohue.

“The Court recognized that EPA’s attempt to sweep small businesses into its greenhouse gas agenda was an unconstitutional power grab," Donohue said. "EPA is now on notice that it does not have unlimited authority to impose massive costs on the US economy and mandate a fundamental redesign of America’s electricity system.”


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