Supreme Court limits EPA’s authority to regulate power plant emissions

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the decision, which cuts back on the agency's existing climate rules

Topics: Supreme Court, EPA, Justice Antonin Scalia, greenhouse-gas emissions, Climate Change, Air pollution, ,

Supreme Court limits EPA's authority to regulate power plant emissionsAntonin Scalia (Credit: Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)

The Supreme Court Monday handed down a 5-4 decision limiting the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in what’s currently “the sole Obama administration program already in place to deal with power plant and factory emissions of gases blamed for global warming.”

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the decision, which found that the Environmental Protection Agency lacks the authority, in some cases, to require permits from the biggest polluting factories. Still, Scalia maintained that the decision won’t cripple the agency’s power: “EPA is getting almost everything it wanted in this case,” he said from the bench. “It sought to regulate sources it said were responsible for 86 percent of all the greenhouse gases emitted from stationary sources nationwide. Under our holdings, EPA will be able to regulate sources responsible for 83 percent of those emissions.”

The decision itself was narrow, addressing, as Scalia acknowledged, only 3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources. The court’s already affirmed that greenhouse gas emissions are pollutants that cause a threat to public health and that the EPA is authorized to regulate emissions from motor vehicles. Monday’s decision just revisits the agency’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act, which industry groups argued was contorted to fit its regulatory agenda. It doesn’t affect the newly proposed rules for limiting emissions from existing power plants, and preserves the agency’s authority over other, non-greenhouse gas pollutants.

After arguments were heard in February, the New York Times noted that “the justices seemed divided along ideological lines over whether [the EPA's interpretation] was a sensible accommodation or an impermissible exercise of executive authority.” The latter appears to have won out.



Despite the ideological defeat, the Times calls the decision a victory for the EPA, and SCOTUSBlog notes that the agency “likely has other tools to fill in the gap created by today’s decision.”

In a statement, the EPA affirmed that the decision won’t seriously limit its efforts to control emissions:

Today is a good day for all supporters of clean air and public health and those concerned with creating a better environment for future generations.  Today, the Supreme  Court largely upheld EPA’s approach to focusing Clean Air Act permits on only the largest stationary sources of greenhouse gases such as power plants, refineries, and other types of industrial facilities. The Supreme Court’s decision is a win for our efforts to reduce carbon pollution because it allows EPA, states and other permitting authorities to continue to require carbon pollution limits in permits for the largest pollution sources.   We are pleased that the Court’s decision is consistent with our approach to focus on other Clean Air Act tools like the Clean Power Plan to limit carbon pollution as part of the President’s Climate Action Plan.

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

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