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US Supreme Court Case Has Climate Change Implications

(File) Smoke rises from the stacks of the La Cygne Generating Station coal-fired power plant in La Cygne, Kansas.
(File) Smoke rises from the stacks of the La Cygne Generating Station coal-fired power plant in La Cygne, Kansas.
Rosanne Skirble
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case that could have broader implications in the effort to fight climate change.

Last June, the Obama Administration announced an ambitious series of measures to reduce climate-changing carbon emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enacted stricter rules for cars and new power plants and is working on developing new standards for existing coal-fired power plants.  

Opponents say the EPA is over-reaching its authority to regulate carbon emissions.

The case focuses on a single, narrow question: does the EPA's authority to limit emissions from new cars and trucks give it the authority to issue permits for power plant construction or modification?  

Scott Segal, who directs the industry trade group the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, says the requirements for pollution controls on vehicles should not be applied to the permitting process for power plants, factories and other stationary sources of emissions.  

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“It has always been extremely controversial for the agency to condition the granting of these permits on new requirements, and what the Agency has done has created some confusion of whether they will condition future permits on carbon controls,” Segal said.    

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had the authority to regulate pollution coming from new motor vehicles. In 2011, it ruled that the EPA could set pollution standards for power plants. Industry appeals to reverse those rules failed.  

The case now before the Supreme Court won’t change those earlier decisions, according to David Doniger, who directs the climate policy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“So even though there is a case before the Supreme Court, we have mostly won this question of EPA authority,” Doniger said.

Segal is not so sure. He says the fact that they took this case is a sign that some of the justices on the high court have concerns about the legality of the EPA's moves to regulate carbon emissions.  He says it is Congress, and not the EPA, that determines U.S. climate policy.  

“And this Supreme Court case may be the first opportunity for the Court to speak and perhaps direct the agency that they have gone too far, too fast,” Segal said.  

Doniger notes Congress has failed in recent years to create climate laws and stresses that the case before the court focuses on permits only. It is not a challenge to established rules under the Clean Air Act that Congress passed in 1970, the same year the EPA was created.

“It’s like a defense shield against new pollution problems," Doniger said, "and it’s EPA's job to carry that law out even if the current Congress doesn’t like it.”

Until Congress can harness a majority to strengthen or repeal the Clean Air Act, the law stands and is binding and enforceable under the Environmental Protection Agency’s mandate, according to Doniger.  

A decision in the case is expected by June.

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