Supreme Court to Bush
4/3/2007

Court Turns Up the Heat on Global Warming

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court affirms that the EPA has the authority
to regulate carbon emissions

by Moira Herbst / Business Week

April 4, 2007

 

Adding
to the mounting pressure for federal legislation on climate change, the
U.S. Supreme Court on Apr. 2 ruled that the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide from vehicle
emissions and that the agency has shirked its responsibility to do so.

 

The
5-4 decision in the high court's first global warming case is a rebuke
to the administration of President George W. Bush, which has opposed
mandatory caps on carbon emissions. The EPA, headed by Bush appointees,
has declined to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to
global warming for a number of reasons, including its argument that
carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases emitted from car tailpipes
aren't pollutants.

 

The
groundbreaking Supreme Court ruling establishes that carbon dioxide and
other greenhouse gases are, in fact, pollutants and fall under
regulation established by the Clean Air Act of 1970. "EPA has refused
to comply with this clear statutory command," the court said in the
majority opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens. "Instead, it has
offered a laundry list of reasons not to regulate."

 

Ruling Isn't Requirement

 

The
decision included sharp words for the Administration: "[W]hile the
President has broad authority in foreign affairs, that authority does
not extend to the refusal to execute domestic laws."

 

The
court's ruling doesn't explicitly require the EPA to regulate carbon
dioxide emissions. But the agency can avoid doing so "only if it
determines 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."

 

A
spokeswoman for the EPA said in an e-mail that the agency "is reviewing
the court's decision to determine the appropriate course of action."
She added that the "Bush Administration has spent over $35 billion on
climate-change programs—more than any other country in the world."

 

Minority View

 

The
dissenting judges had critical words for the majority. The minority
opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts and signed by
Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito. Roberts
wrote that new motor-vehicle greenhouse gas emissions have played only
a "bit part" in the "150-year global phenomenon" of global warming, and
that lead plaintiff Massachusetts'
link of the loss of coastal land to such emissions is "far too
speculative to establish connection." In his own, additional dissent,
Justice Scalia argued that even if global warming is a crisis requiring
immediate attention, it is the job of Congress and the President—not
the courts—to address it. "No matter how important the underlying
policy issues at stake, this court has no business substituting its own
desired outcome for the reasoned judgment of the responsible agency."

 

The
lawsuit that sparked the Supreme Court decision was brought by cities
and states, including Massachusetts, that claimed the EPA's refusal to
regulate carbon emissions was causing harm to their residents (see
BusinessWeek.com, 10/30/06, "Global Warming: Here Come The Lawyers").
The case is specifically about carbon emissions from cars and trucks
produced by the auto industry. But it may serve as a precedent for
broader regulation of carbon emissions, including those from power
companies. The key is that the decision defines greenhouse gases like
carbon dioxide as pollutants, affirming they fall under the regulatory
scope of the Clean Air Act. With that definition established, states
and Congress appear to be entitled to enact legislation curbing them.

 

Environmental
groups say that the decision is a crucial step in the path to federal
carbon emissions legislation. "Today's ruling is a watershed moment in
the fight against global warming," said Carl Pope, executive director
of the Sierra Club in a statement. "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 sends a clear signal to
the markets that the future lies not in the dirty, outdated
technologies of yesterday, but in the clean energy solutions that will
fuel the economy of tomorrow."

 

Congress Getting Involved

 

Momentum
for federal legislation to curb carbon emissions has been growing in
recent months. Major U.S. corporations are joining environmentalists'
call for a federal cap in greenhouse emissions, underlining the need
for both a uniform regulatory environment, and a reduction in the risks
global warming poses to their businesses. In January, the heads of 10
large U.S.
corporations, including General Electric (GE), said they supported
mandatory caps. And in March, General Motors (GM), Ford Motor (F),
Chrysler (DCX), and Toyota North America (TM) endorsed a mandatory
economy-wide emissions cap.

 

Five
bills in Congress currently call for a national cap on greenhouse gas
emissions. On Mar. 20, Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) used his
moment at the mike to introduce the Safe Climate Act, which calls for
80% cuts from 1990 emissions levels by 2050.

 

But
environmental groups say they don't see such far-reaching legislation
until Bush is out of office. In the shorter term, today's Supreme Court
decision will impact other similar court cases, especially those
related to the auto industry. Automakers have brought suit against
Clean Car Laws enacted by California
and 13 other states. The states derive their authority to enact
stricter standards from the Clean Air Act, so the high court's ruling
is expected to strengthen the states' hand in cases pending in California and Vermont.

 

Helping Hand for the States

 

California
has been asking the EPA for authority to limit tailpipe emissions since
2004, but the agency has yet to grant a state a waiver to do so. Ten
other states have adopted California's
tougher rules, which would force automakers to cut exhaust from cars
and light trucks by 25% and from sport-utility vehicles by 18%,
beginning with 2009 models.

 

** At a news conference today, California Attorney General Jerry Brown
said the Supreme Court ruling "makes it very clear that
California has a right to regulate greenhouse gases."
He added that, "It is time for the automakers,
the electric power industry, and other large
greenhouse gas emitters to join California
in leading the world to global warming solutions."

 

The
auto industry has said it supports federal carbon emissions
legislation, but has resisted raising fuel economy standards. Instead,
it has focused on producing flexible-fuel vehicles (see
BusinessWeek.com, 3/28/07, "The Dirty Secret About Clean Cars"). The
Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a defendant in the Supreme Court
case representing GM, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler, issued a statement
saying it would work for federal carbon-cap legislation, which could
come at a lesser cost to the group's members than higher fuel economy
standards.

 

"The
Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers believes that there needs to be a
national, federal, economy-wide approach to addressing greenhouse
gases," says Dave McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile
Manufacturers. "This decision says that the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency will be part of this process."

 

Environmental
advocates are optimistic that today's decision signals a change in
legislative winds, though they don't expect major policy shifts
overnight. "I expect new standards to result from this opinion," says
Norman Dean, executive director of the environmental group Friends of
the Earth. "How stringent they'll be in this environment is another
matter."

 

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