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Supreme Court says EPA can regulate greenhouse gases

In a defeat for the Bush administration, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Environmental Protection Agency can regulate carbon dioxide emissions from cars under the Clean Air Act.

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    Today's decision ordering the EPA to consider regulating car emissions and other greenhouse gases was considered the most significant environmental case of this term. The court also weighed in on a second big case, this one involving pollution and aging power plants.

    Here to walk us through both decisions is NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

    And, first, Marcia, what was at issue in Massachusetts v. EPA?

  • MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal:

    Well, Ray, Massachusetts and a number of other states, local governments and private organizations had sued EPA, claiming that it had abdicated its responsibility under the Clean Air Act by refusing to regulate the emissions of four greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, known to contribute to global warming.

    They lost in the lower courts. They brought the case to the Supreme Court and asked two basic questions: One, did EPA have the authority to regulate these emissions from new motor vehicles under the Clean Air Act? And if it did, were the reasons EPA had given for not doing it consistent with the Clean Air Act?


    So Massachusetts went into court and pled that, but EPA went into court, what, and said, "We as a regulator, we don't want to regulate this"?


    Well, EPA really had two arguments. It said first that it didn't believe it had authority under the language of the Clean Air Act to regulate these emissions and said, secondly, even if it did have the authority, it felt it was unwise to do so at this time, because a variety of reasons. There was no clear causal link between the greenhouse gases and global warming, and regulation would interfere with a variety of other federal global warming programs, including the president's approach in treaty negotiations.


    And what did the justices decide?


    The justices rejected all of EPA's arguments, those two, as well as a very important question involving whether the states and the local governments even had what we call "standing" to sue EPA, that is, had the right to go into court and sue EPA.

    First of all, the court — it was a 5-4 decision written by Justice John Paul Stevens — said first the language of the Clean Air Act, how it defines "air pollutant" is a sweeping definition, and the greenhouse gases fit well within the definition of air pollutant.

    And then it said EPA's alternative argument, that it was unwise even if it had authority to regulate, that the reasons given were really policy reasons that had nothing to do with the text of the statutes, the text of the Clean Air Act.

    The courts said that EPA has to come up with reasons that form a scientific judgment, and the reasons it gave were not in that category. So EPA acted arbitrarily and capriciously and against the Clean Air Act.