Court slows EPA on emissions, but largely backs its rules

Willie Grace | 6/23/2014, 7:10 p.m. | Updated on 6/23/2014, 7:10 p.m.
The Supreme Court on Monday took away some of the government's power to tighten emission standards, but preserved the majority ...

The Supreme Court on Monday took away some of the government's power to tighten emission standards, but preserved the majority of its authority under federal law to regulate greenhouse gases.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices affirmed conclusions by much of the scientific community that greenhouse gases blamed for global warming are pollutants.

Although it concluded that the Environmental Protection Agency could not completely extend its regulatory authority for limiting the expansion or building of new facilities like power plants.

The ruling, on a case seen as a major test of executive authority, gave both sides of the politically charged debate some reason to celebrate. But it also may have the longer term effect of extending legal fights for years.

Many conservative groups have characterized President Barack Obama as misusing his power and ignoring the will of Congress.

Industry has complained that the administration has used its power to include the development of power plants and other stationary infrastructure.

Businesses worry any unchecked expansion of rules could someday apply to millions of other small carbon emitters -- schools, small businesses, and shopping malls. The court agreed to some extent.

Justice Antonin Scalia said the "EPA's rewriting of the statute was impermissible."

But the court majority said the administration was not being hampered too greatly in the end, since EPA can still regulate all but 3 percent of the 86 percent of sources responsible for greenhouse gases.

"EPA is getting almost everything it wanted in this case," said Scalia.

The agency responded positively to the decision.

"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," it said in a statement.

The government is now expected to continue pushing for authority over emissions from coal-fired plants. And the court's action will not end what are expected to be further court fights between the administration and industry.

Obama earlier this year announced new rules to extend carbon emission standards to larger trucks and buses. The White House said ongoing stalemates on Capitol Hill prompted him to act.

Republicans in Congress and their allies have expressed similar concerns over discretionary executive branch changes and delays in implementing Obamacare reforms, a tepid federal response to recent state marijuana legalization, and a refusal to defend a law that did not recognize legally married same-sex couples for federal purposes.

The high court last summer struck down that provision in the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

The justices in 2007 agreed with EPA and many environmentalists that greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions, cause air pollution, but that case dealt with emissions from motor vehicles.

Defining "air pollutant" within the context of greenhouse gases and the ability of the EPA to exercise its regulatory authority absent what it says was a clear congressional mandate -- was the issue here.

"Today the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a stern rebuke to the President," said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. "It is a resounding defeat for those, like the President, who would use unelected bureaucracies to override the will of the people."

Texas and 16 other the states in the South and Midwest were among the parties whose cases were reviewed by the court.

A coalition of 15 states backs the White House. Some progressive groups worry the conservative majority Supreme Court has been overly friendly to corporate interests in recent years.

This is the second major environmental regulation case that will be heard this term.

The justices earlier this year allowed the EPA to measure emissions from an upwind state that is polluting a downwind state, and requiring upwind states to pay for greenhouse gas reductions.

Many business groups had hoped the conservative majority would limit the reach of government in this and a range of regulatory areas, which the Chamber of Commerce and others say is hurting the economy and stifling innovation.

For more information go to