US Supreme Court rules on GHG regulation

Washington, D.C., USA (GLOBE-Net) – The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favour of a coalition of states and environmental groups in a landmark case that brought the issue of climate change to the top court for the first time. In its decision, the court rebuked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), saying it has the authority to regulate vehicle emissions of greenhouse gases and strongly urging it to take such action.

The case was brought by 12 states and 13 environmental groups, led by the State of Massachusetts. The group’s central argument was that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) are air pollutants covered by the federal Clean Air Act, and therefore must be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Vehicle fuel economy standards in the U.S. have remained relatively stagnant since 1987, with most manufacturers using efficiency improvements to enhance performance rather than reduce consumption.

Estimates are that U.S. vehicles produce around 6 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, an amount which EPA lawyers allege would have little effect on climate change if regulated, but which the states say would have a significant impact.

The Supreme Court had to answer three questions in its ruling on Massachusetts v. EPA, 05-1120:

  • Does the group of states have legal standing to challenge the EPA decision not to regulate GHG emissions?

  • Does the Clean Air Act give the EPA the right to regulate GHG emissions from vehicle tailpipes?

  • Does the EPA have the discretion not to regulate those emissions?

On the first two questions, the court answered ‘yes’, in a split 5-4 decision. The decision is significant, since it means that the country’s major piece of air pollution legislation does cover greenhouse gases, a ruling which could have implications beyond fuel efficiency.

Legal experts have pointed out that the court’s decision could change the way a future U.S. climate change plan is implemented, as it gives the federal administration the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions without waiting for Congressional approval.

On the third question, the court ordered the EPA to re-evaluate its position that it has the discretion to not regulate tailpipe GHG emissions. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority, saying that the EPA can only avoid issuing such regulations if it can determine that GHGs do not contribute to climate change, or if it provides a reasonable explanation for not taking action.

“EPA has offered no reasoned explanation for its refusal to decide whether greenhouse gases cause or contribute to climate change,” Stevens said. He was supported by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter, and the court’s swing voter, Justice Anthony Kennedy. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. Justice Roberts focused on the issue of standing in his dissenting opinion.

The ruling should give a boost to California’s efforts to gain EPA approval of its stringent new tailpipe regulations. The state is being sued by all major automakers, supported by the federal government, for its strict new program.

The EPA had argued that “The only way to cut (carbon dioxide) emissions is through a drastic increase in fuel economy - which in the past has led to smaller, lighter and less-safe vehicles.”

The case is a prominent example of a trend which has taken place in the country over the past several years. States and lower levels of government have become increasingly dissatisfied with a lack of environmental protection and climate change legislation at the federal level, and have taken to the courts to force action.

The Canadian government has announced plans to introduce tighter fuel consumption standards in 2011, after a voluntary agreement with automakers expires. The new standards are expected to mirror those used in California.

Road transportation in Canada produced 145 Megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2004 – 19% of the national GHG emissions total. Transportation also produces up to two-thirds of smog-forming pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides.

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