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Supreme Court Rejects Challenges to Climate Science and EPA Carbon Pollution Standards

David Doniger

Posted October 15, 2013

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The Supreme Court today rejected last-ditch efforts by industry and conservative states to block EPA from setting standards to curb the carbon pollution that drives dangerous climate change.  The Court’s ruling clears the way for EPA to issue carbon pollution standards for power plants under President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

The Court denied petitions to review EPA’s landmark carbon pollution decisions issued in President Obama’s first term:  the 2009 “endangerment determination” and the 2010 clean car standards set jointly with the Transportation Department and with the support of the entire car industry.   

The Court granted petitions to review just one issue:  whether EPA’s vehicle emission standards triggered requirements for carbon-emitting industrial sources to obtain permits under other parts of the Clean Air Act.

What this means is that right-wing challenges to climate science and the Clean Air Act have failed in the Supreme Court for the third time.  The Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA in 2007 that EPA had to set standards for carbon pollution from motor vehicles under Section 202 of the Clean Air Act if it determined that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare.  In American Electric Power v. Connecticut in 2011, the Court ruled that EPA has the same authority for power plants’ carbon pollution under Section 111.  

In today’s ruling, the Court rejected all appeals to revisit those decisions, and limited its review to a single question the prior cases had not addressed:  whether the requirements that new and modified major industrial sources obtain construction permits, and that existing major industrial sources obtain operating permits, are triggered when a source emits large amounts of carbon dioxide or another greenhouse gas.  

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that those permitting requirements kicked in automatically when EPA’s clean car standards took effect.  The Supreme Court today asked for briefs on this question:  “Whether EPA permissibly determined that its regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases.”

We’re confident that EPA and the Court of Appeals got it right – that the permitting requirements do apply to greenhouse gas sources.

But the most important thing about today’s Supreme Court ruling is that it reaffirms EPA’s authority and responsibility to act on the overwhelming science showing that carbon pollution is driving dangerous climate change.

President Obama deserves enormous credit for setting landmark clean car standards that will cut carbon pollution in half and double fuel economy over the next decade.  And he has the support of millions of Americans now in tackling the dangerous carbon pollution from our power plants. 

These are critical steps to protect our children and grandchildren from a world turned upside down by climate change.

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Michael BerndtsonOct 15 2013 03:49 PM

Isn't the remaining issue (or whatever lawyers call it) the meat and potatoes of the matter? Copied below:

"whether the requirement that new and modified major industrial sources obtain construction permits, and the requirement that existing major industrial sources obtain operating permits, are triggered when a source emits large amounts of carbon dioxide or another greenhouse gas. "

If I'm not mistaken construction permits are based on design calculations and have a period of application somewhere between shovel readiness (really startup) and whenever. An operating permit may be granted based on prescribed standards or initial operation performance. I believe some (a bunch of) states are pushing these two permits into one permit for streamlining.

I can't remember if a performance standard (mass per unit of time) for carbon dioxide was even set for stationary sources? How long is a piece of string? Mothballing and grandfathering are two terms of interest.

David DonigerOct 15 2013 07:03 PM

Michael, to play with your metaphor, the meat and potatoes are the endangerment determination and the standards for cars and power plants. The permitting programs are a side dish. I like my sides, and I will fight to keep them. But no one is touching the meat and potatoes.

Ken ClarkOct 17 2013 07:45 AM

Thank you David Doniger. There may be hope, yet.

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