Because Congress has refused for years to pass meaningful climate-change legislation, President Obama has worked to broaden the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to curb greenhouse-gas emissions through regulation. A case before the U.S. Supreme Court will determine the extent of that authority; the high court should continue to allow the EPA to pursue reasonable, necessary regulation.
In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA could declare carbon dioxide — the most common greenhouse gas — a pollutant covered by the federal Clean Air Act, and that the EPA could regulate carbon emissions under the law. Since then, the court has refused to hear a challenge to EPA rules issued in 2011 that restrict carbon emissions from the tailpipes of new cars and light trucks.
The EPA wants similarly to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere, from stationary sources such as power plants and factories. Two years ago, a federal appeals court upheld the agency’s position; business groups appealed that ruling, claiming the EPA was exceeding its authority. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case this week.
The Clean Air Act, which Congress passed in 1970, does not specifically address greenhouse emissions. The controversy over human-made climate change was not the issue then that it is today.
The law sets limits on emissions by major sources of other air pollutants such as ozone, lead, and sulfur dioxide. Were those limits applied to carbon dioxide, though, they could require a costly permitting process for millions of small businesses, office and apartment buildings, farms, hospitals, schools, churches, and private homes — certainly not the intent of the law.
Sensibly, the EPA has made clear it seeks to regulate only the largest stationary sources of carbon emissions. But critics are using that distinction to equate the agency’s less than literal reading of the Clean Air Act with a wholesale attempt to rewrite the law. It isn’t.
The Supreme Court already has ruled that the EPA needs “regulatory flexibility” to address “changing circumstances and scientific developments.” It also has defined the agency’s greenhouse-gas regulatory framework as a federal climate-change policy.
Both of these rulings apply to the EPA’s approach to curbing emissions that are harmful to the environment and public health. The high court should affirm the EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act in this instance as well.
If business lobbies and their political allies don’t like this sort of regulation, they can prevail on Congress to amend the Clean Air Act to deal specifically with emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, or to enact some other form of climate-change legislation. In the meantime, the EPA’s effort to fill the vacuum Congress has created is not only proper but needed.