June 23, 2014  by tperry

Supreme Court limits greenhouse gas regulations

WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court blocked the Obama administration Monday from requiring permits for some industries that spew greenhouse gases, but the ruling won’t prohibit other means of regulating the pollutant that causes global warming.

The court’s conservative wing ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency exceeded its authority by changing the emissions threshold for greenhouse gases in the Clean Air Act. That action can only be taken by Congress, Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion said.

The 5-4 ruling, which partially reverses a 2012 federal appeals court decision, represents a moral victory for industry and state government opponents of the federal regulations. They have complained that the rules could cost billions of dollars to implement and threaten thousands of jobs.

But the court said the EPA can regulate greenhouse gas emissions from industries already required to get permits for other forms of emissions. As a result, Scalia said, the agency will be able to regulate sources responsible for 83% of all greenhouse gases emitted from stationary sources nationwide.

To go further and require permits for all industries, Scalia said, “would contradict the principle that Congress, not the president, makes the law, and would undermine the separation of powers that is crucial to our constitutional system of government.”

The decision only removed one method the administration uses to regulate greenhouse gas emissions at power plants, refineries and other stationary sources, leaving other methods in place. That likely means that the administration will move ahead with its new regulations on existing coal-fired power plants, setting off a new wave of lawsuits.

The court’s liberal wing dissented from the main part of the decision, arguing that the EPA’s actions were reasonable in order to avoid an absurd over-regulation of pollutants such as carbon dioxide — and would help the very industries seeking to overturn them.

“What sense does it make to read the (Clean Air) Act as generally granting the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and then to read it as denying that power with respect to the programs for large stationary sources at issue here?” Justice Stephen Breyer said.

Those four justices agreed with the second part of the ruling — that EPA can require greenhouse gas permits from industries already required to get the permits for other pollutants.

The high court ruled 5-4 in 2007 that greenhouse gases qualify as an air pollutant, even though their impact isn’t as direct as others. That decision gave the EPA authority to regulate tailpipe emissions from motor vehicles. The stationary source regulation was the next step in the process.

Unlike other air pollutants, carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming are so ubiquitous that the EPA raised the law’s threshold level requiring a permit from 100 tons per year to at least 75,000 tons. Opponents decried the move as a major rewrite of the law — something only Congress can do.

Industries, a coalition of conservative states, Republican lawmakers and others claimed the Clean Air Act of 1970 doesn’t empower the administration to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other stationary sources. They say the regulations, begun in 2010, risk jobs and economic development.

The administration, along with environmental groups and a number of other states, including California and New York, said the Clean Air Act was meant to address all air pollutants, including greenhouse gases. Once the administration addressed auto and truck emissions, they argued, the next natural step was power plants.

The EPA’s decision to greatly multiply the level of emissions requiring a permit was simply common sense, proponents said. Otherwise, more than 80,000 mid-size businesses, hospitals, universities, apartment buildings and shopping malls would have required permits.

In April, the Supreme Court handed the administration a major victory in another air pollution case, upholding a regulation that forces 28 states in the Midwest and South to reduce ozone and fine particle emissions that flow north and east into other states.


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