Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Justices side with Maine in two air pollution cases

Portland Press Herald
April 3, 2007

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Bush administration must consider limits on carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles as a way to slow global warming.

The landmark decision, which divided the court 5-4, could lead to a range of federal regulations to fight climate change and could help bring more fuel-efficient cars to Maine dealerships as soon as next year.

It was one of two major air pollution cases decided Monday in favor of Maine and other states that have been pushing in the courts for stronger federal action on the environment.

The second ruling, a unanimous one, said the federal government must continue to use a strict standard for requiring added pollution controls at power plants that increase production. Maine and other states feared a loosening of standards could have meant more air pollution blowing into the state.

"These decisions represent clear wins for the health of the American people," said Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe, whose office submitted arguments in favor of both lawsuits.

The global warming lawsuit was filed by 12 states, including Maine, and 13 environmental groups. The lawsuit argued that carbon dioxide produced when motor vehicles burn gasoline and diesel fuel should be regulated as a pollutant because it contributes to global warming and rising sea levels.

The EPA argued that the states did not have legal standing, that Congress did not mean to cover carbon dioxide in the Clean Air Act and that regulating vehicle emissions won't stop global warming, among other things.

Justice John Paul Stevens criticized the EPA in the majority opinion. He was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and Anthony Kennedy, who is considered the court's swing vote in the case.

"EPA has refused to comply with this clear statutory command. Instead, it has offered a laundry list of reasons not to regulate," Stevens wrote.

EPA can't dismiss regulation because it won't reverse global warming or because there is uncertainty about the effects of climate change, among other arguments, he wrote. "EPA has offered no reasoned explanation for its refusal to decide whether greenhouse gases cause or contribute to climate change," Stevens wrote.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

Roberts wrote a minority opinion, arguing that he was making "no judgment on whether global warming exists, what causes it, or the extent of the problem." But, he said, the states went to court because they did not get what they wanted quickly enough in the political process and that "redress of grievances of the sort at issue here is 'the function of Congress and the chief executive,' not the federal courts."

Although the decision was a close one, it also is clear, according to Rowe. "EPA sidestepped its obligations, and that's what the court found," he said.

The court did not order EPA to regulate the emissions, but said it must do so unless there is a scientific reason to decide against it. Rowe said he believes EPA will act. "If the EPA focused on the science of global warming, it would be forced to regulate," he said.
Environmental groups that joined the lawsuit issued statements hailing the decision.

"This will be a huge turning point in federal policy," said Philip E. Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.

"Today's ruling is not just about vehicle emissions," said Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity. He said the ruling could force the federal government to fight global warming -- by protecting polar bears as an endangered species, for example.

Steve Hinchman of the Conservation Law Foundation in Brunswick said the ruling will help Maine defend a state effort to require the sale of more fuel-efficient cars, starting with model year 2009.

The automobile industry is now challenging laws adopted by Maine and about 10 other states, saying the pollution laws interfere with federal fuel-efficiency standards.

"This decision unequivocally says that (carbon dioxide) is a pollutant and can be regulated under the Clean Air Act," Hinchman said.

Reacting to the court ruling Monday, automakers called for an across-the-economy approach to global warming, cautioning that no single industry could bear the burden alone.

EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said the agency is studying the court's ruling. She defended EPA's voluntary efforts to reduce emissions. "These national and international voluntary programs are helping achieve reductions now while saving millions of dollars, as well as providing clean, affordable energy," Wood said.

The second ruling Monday also was welcomed by Maine officials and environmentalists as having long-term implications for air quality in Maine.

The ruling hinged on when EPA must require power plants to increase their pollution controls. Existing federal rules require added controls whenever a plant increases the amount of air pollution.
Duke Energy Corp. and industry groups argued that improvements shouldn't trigger expensive pollution controls if the plants don't increase hourly emissions. Under that standard, a plant could operate for more hours -- increasing annual pollution -- without triggering the tougher standards.

Maine and others states, as well as the EPA, argued the federal government should continue to base the rules on annual emissions.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to a federal appeals court that had sided with Duke Energy.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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