In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take another look at regulating carbon dioxide emissions from cars. The case was Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, and it was filed by 12 states and 13 environmental groups after the Republican-controlled Congress refused to adopt a global-warming policy in 1999.

n a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take another look at regulating carbon dioxide emissions from cars. The case was Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, and it was filed by 12 states and 13 environmental groups after the Republican-controlled Congress refused to adopt a global-warming policy in 1999. In 2003, the EPA decided that it lacked the authority to act under the Clean Air Act (CAA) to address car emissions with regard to climate change. The case argued that under Section 202 of the CAA, the EPA is required to set emission standards for “any air pollutant” from motor vehicles “which in [EPA’s] judgment cause[s], or contribute[s] to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” Welfare is defined to include, among other things, “effects on … weather … and climate.”

The EPA’s defense was to claim that controlling automobile emissions would have little impact in reversing global-warming trends. The Court found in favor of Massachusetts, stating that it did not have to show that regulation would actually reverse global warming. Rather it was sufficient to show that “[a] reduction in domestic emissions would slow the pace of global emissions increases, no matter what happens elsewhere.”

Standing

In addition, Massachusetts was successful in convincing the court that rising sea levels, in fact, established a sufficient risk of harm. This reaffirmed scientific evidence projecting the effects from global warming. Oddly enough, it also provided a political opening for Chief Justice John Roberts to avoid a direct dissent to the core argument in the case. Roberts’ opinion did not refute the EPA’s responsibility to address issues of global warming. Instead, he took a politically safe position by dissenting on the procedural grounds of “standing.”

Under Article III of the Constitution, plaintiffs must have “standing” before a federal court can hear their claims. This means that plaintiffs must show that they have actually “suffered a concrete and particularized harm that the court has the power to redress.” This is always difficult in cases involving ubiquitous pollution and indirect impacts. Even more, this case dealt with “projected” impacts.

The Court concluded that the state of Massachusetts did have standing. According to Roberts, “fears of climate change are a perfect example of the sort of generalized political grievance that should be addressed by the people’s elected representatives in Congress and the executive, rather than by unelected judges in federal courts.”

The Court held that: states have standing to sue the EPA, alleging injuries from climate change; the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases as “pollutants” under the Clean Air Act; and the EPA did not adequately justify its decision not to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from motor vehicles under the act. Given the Court’s opinion, the agency is left with little choice but to begin the process of regulating greenhouse gases.

What to Expect

It is unclear at this time how EPA will proceed. A wait-and-see approach is expected given that there are a number of greenhouse gas (GHG) proposals planned to hit Congress this year. One thought is that the EPA will support the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has pledged to produce legislation to cap GHG emissions. It’s worth noting that the heads of the Big Three automakers have publicly come out to support the cap.

Anticipating the April Supreme Court ruling and to address issues of national security, the Bush administration introduced a legislative proposal March 20 to reduce gasoline consumption by 20% in 2017 – known as the “20 in 10” proposal. The main component of the plan is a supply side initiative to increase alternative fuel generation, primarily ethanol. Critics are claiming that certain types of ethanol generation actually increase CO2 emissions during processing beyond what can be reduced by fuel substitution.

The last six years of political choices on issues of the environment have left the Bush administration with little influence and credibility regarding environmental protection. As a result, even decent proposals such as the 20 in 10, which includes innovative initiatives like banking and trading programs designed to temper price volatility and supply disruptions, are met with skepticism and don’t stand a chance on their own. At best, the Bush administration’s proposal will most likely be kicked to subcommittee, and portions of it might be rolled into legislation as part of a more comprehensive GHG and global-warming plan to be taken up by the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. IH