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Supreme Court Pushes EPA on Climate Change

The U.S. Supreme Court announced today a long-awaited ruling on global warming-causing greenhouse gases.

In a 5-4 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, the Court ruled that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and that states can sue to force it to comply.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority opinion, in which he said greenhouse gases are considered pollutants under the Clean Air Act, and as a result, the EPA has the necessary authority to regulate their emissions.

"EPA has offered no reasoned explanation for its refusal to decide whether greenhouse gases cause or contribute to climate change," Stevens wrote in the opinion. The other liberal Justices, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter, joined him in the majority, as well as the court's swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy. Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts were the dissenting votes.

The lawsuit was filed by 12 states and 13 environmental groups that had grown frustrated by the Bush administration's inaction on global warming. In September 2003, in response to a petition by environmental groups, the EPA said it did not have the authority to regulate GHG emissions, and further stated that even if the agency did have the authority, it would be unwise to regulate them until more conclusive evidence was available.

The ruling addressed three fundamental questions:
  • Do states have the right to sue the EPA to challenge its decision?
  • Does the Clean Air Act give EPA the authority to regulate tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases? and
  • Does EPA have the discretion not to regulate those emissions?
The court ruled yes on the first two questions, and said that the EPA must "reconsider" its decision not to regulate GHG emission.

In the dissent, Chief Justice Roberts focused primarily on the fact that the litigants did not have the standing to file this lawsuit in the first place. Furthermore, he argured, the other branches of government are already addressing the issue at hand:

"Global warming may be a 'crisis,' even 'the most pressing environmental problem of our time.' Indeed, it may ultimately affect nearly everyone on the planet in some potentially adverse way, and it may be that governments have done too little to address it. It is not a problem, however, that has escaped the attention of policymakers in the Executive and Legislative Branches of our Government, who continue to consider regulatory, legislative, and treaty-based means of addressing global climate change.

In addition to pushing the federal government closer to taking substantive action on regulation greenhouse gas emissions, the decision will also ease the adoption of California's new program to limit tailpipe emissions of GHGs.

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