What this week's Supreme Court order really means

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S.E.B./flickr

This commentary originally appeared on EDF’s Climate 411 blog.

This week the Supreme Court denied numerous legal attacks seeking further judicial review of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) determination that greenhouse gas emissions are dangerous to human health and welfare, and of other key aspects of EPA’s first generation of climate policies.

The Court agreed to hear arguments on one narrow issue, relevant to one specific Clean Air Act permitting program.

This marked the end of the road for years of sustained industry attacks on the scientific and legal foundation for addressing climate pollution under the Clean Air Act. This was a tremendous victory for science and the rule of law.

But some media reporting suggested just the opposite.

This was the lead of USA Today’s story:

“Dealing a potential blow to the Obama administration and environmentalists, the Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to consider limiting the Environmental Protection Agency's power to regulate greenhouse gases.”

(We don’t mean to single out USA Today, which has a well-deserved reputation for excellent environmental reporting. Other media coverage was also confusing. We have more examples at the end of this post.)

Given all that, it seems like it might be helpful to look at the facts of what the Court did and did not do:

Fact One

Industry lawyers threw every attack they could think of at EPA’s science-based finding that greenhouse gas emissions endanger the public health and welfare of current and future generations due to intensifying smog levels, floods, drought, wildfires, and other dangerous climate impacts. The Supreme Court rejected every single industry challenge to the Endangerment Finding.

What this means

This is the end of the road for more than four years of industry regulatory, procedural, and legal attacks on the Endangerment Finding. The End.

But it means more than that. The reason why fossil fuel interests have been so desperate to discredit the Endangerment Finding is because it is the cornerstone for controlling climate pollution under the Clean Air Act — not just for the Clean Car Standards, but also for the forthcoming Carbon Pollution Standards for new and existing power plants and other major sources.

EPA’s Endangerment Finding reflects a vast body of peer-reviewed scientific research by thousands of scientists. Attempts to attack it through litigation have failed. This is a tremendous moment, and an unmistakable sign of the strength of the legal foundation for controlling climate pollution from cars and trucks, power plants, and other major sources under the Clean Air Act.

Fact Two

The Supreme Court denied every legal challenge seeking review of the Clean Car Standards.

What this means

The landmark Clean Car Standards were strongly supported by U.S. automakers and the United Auto Workers. The Association of Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers helped to defend them in court.

These standards, combined with the second generation Clean Car Standards, mean the U.S. will achieve a fleet-wide average of 54.5 mpg by 2025, cut greenhouse gas pollution by six billion tons, avoid 12 billion barrels of oil imports, and save consumers $1.7 trillion at the gas pump — an average of $8,000 per vehicle by 2025.

Fact Three

The Supreme Court did grant review of a narrow question relevant to one specific (and important) Clean Air Act permitting program — did the regulation of greenhouse gases under the clean car program also make greenhouse gases regulated under the program requiring pre-construction review permits for major stationary pollution sources.

What this means

We believe that the Clean Air Act is clear — on its face — that this permitting program applies to all pollutants, as EPA has implemented it. We will vigorously defend this interpretation in front of the Supreme Court, and we believe that we will succeed.

Moreover, even some petitioners have recognized — as did U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Kavanaugh in his dissent below — that even if the permit program were limited in the way they assert, the requirement to adopt the best pollution controls for greenhouse gases would still apply to sources that are required to obtain permits due to their emissions of other airborne contaminants regulated under national ambient air quality standards.

What this does NOT mean

The question being reviewed by the Supreme Court is important. But it does not have any effect on the programs going forward to address carbon pollution from the two largest sources in our nation — power plants, under the forthcoming Carbon Pollution Standards, and transportation, under the Clean Car Standards.

Bottom Line

The Obama Administration’s vital plan to protect our communities and families from climate change has NOT been called into question by the Supreme Court’s review of one question related to the permitting program for major stationary sources of emissions.

By rejecting every petition challenging the Endangerment Finding and the Clean Car Standards, the Court has yet again indicated that EPA is fulfilling its statutory duty in addressing greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Building on this firm foundation, EPA has a responsibility to protect Americans’ health and well-being from the threat of climate change. That includes establishing limits on carbon pollution from power plants — the single largest source of climate destabilizing emissions in our nation.

(As mentioned above, here are other examples of confusing media coverage from Tuesday morning.)

“The Supreme Court on Tuesday said it would consider challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency’s permitting requirements for power plants and other facilities that emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, throwing the Obama administration’s regulations into a state of uncertainty.” (emphasis is ours) - Wall Street Journal (available by subscription only)

“The hearings, set for next year, could allow the Court to scale back the Obama Administration’s climate regulations at a time when the chance of passing legislation to limit carbon emissions—long the preferred route of the White House and most environmental groups—seems virtually nil.” (emphasis is ours) - Time

“At issue is whether the federal Environmental Protection Agency can tighten emission standards for stationary greenhouse gas sources, such as power plants, in what the government says is an effort to stem the effects of global warming.” (emphasis is ours) - CNN

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Megan Ceronsky

Megan Ceronsky

Megan Ceronsky, based in Washington, D.C., is an attorney with EDF's Climate and Air program. 

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Comments

Thank you for this clear and concise explanation! It's going on my FB page to share with family and friends who may also have been mislead or confused about the reported findings.