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The Power of the EPA -- and the Supreme Court case that affirmed it

The EPA's finding Monday that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases endanger public health wouldn't have been possible without an April 2007 ruling by the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the court said that carbon dioxide should be considered a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and that, as a result, EPA had not only the power but the obligation to issue guidelines for CO2 emissions. A lot of people opposed that result, but the opinion written by Justice Stevens is pretty clear. Here are a few key excerpts for anyone in need of a refresher.

In response to notion that greenhouse gases aren't covered by the Clean Air Act, Stevens wrote on page 3:

The Act defines "air pollutant" to include "any air pollution agent or combination of such agents, including any physical, chemical, biological, radioactive... substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air." §7602(g). "Welfare" is also defined broadly: among other things, it includes "effects on... weather... and climate." §7602(h).

The case revolved around the question of whether the EPA should regulate the tailpipe emissions from automobiles. On page 25, Stevens writes:

On the merits, the first question is whether §202(a)(1) of the Clean Air Act authorizes EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles in the event that it forms a "judgment" that such emissions contribute to climate change. We have little trouble concluding that it does. In relevant part, §202(a)(1) provides that EPA "shallby regulation prescribe . . . standards applicable to the emission of any air pollutant from any class or classes of new motor vehicles or new motor vehicle engines, which in [the Administrator's] judgment cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare."

On the next page he adds: The statute is unambiguous.

In the case, Massachusetts v. EPA, the Bush administration's EPA was trying to avoid regulating tailpipe emissions. As Stevens notes in his opinion, the Bush EPA "offered a laundry list of reasons not to regulate." It argued that regulations could hinder Bush's international climate negotiations and that regulating tailpipe emissions would be a "piecemeal" approach and inefficient. But Steven says on page 30: Under the clear terms of the Clean Air Act, EPA can avoid taking further action only if it determines that 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.


Steven Mufson

 |  December 7, 2009; 4:31 PM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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