The US Supreme Court was to start reviewing yesterday whether US President Barack Obama’s administration overstepped its authority by imposing new regulations to reduce pollution in response to climate change.
In a 90-minute oral argument, extended from 60 minutes because many parties are involved, the justices were to examine a relatively narrow challenge by industry groups and Republican-leaning states to one aspect of a suite of regulations issued by Obama’s Democratic administration in 2009 and 2010.
The regulations represent the first major federal effort to tackle greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are the driving force behind climate change.
Obama has been going it alone on climate change, largely because of opposition from Republicans and some Democrats in congress. The Clean Air Act has been the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) main tool for addressing emissions since the senate rejected a cap-and-trade bill in 2010.
The nine justices are to weigh whether the agency has authority to regulate greenhouse gases under a program for issuing permits for stationary sources of pollution, such as power plants and oil refineries. A decision is expected by the end of June.
When the court agreed to hear the case in October, it declined to consider several broader questions that would have more directly attacked the authority of the EPA in its regulation of greenhouse gases.
By declining to hear those questions, the court indicated it was unlikely to revisit a landmark 2007 case, Massachusetts versus EPA, when it held on a 5-4 vote that carbon was a pollutant that could potentially be regulated under the air pollution law.
The single question the high court agreed to hear was one of many raised by nine different coalitions of industry groups, such as the American Petroleum Institute, and 16 states, including Texas and Virginia.
“We remain concerned that if the EPA continues to stretch the boundaries of the Clean Air Act and apply it to greenhouse gases, it could have dire consequences for our members,” said Ross Eisenberg, vice president for energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, one of the challengers.
In June 2012, an appeals court in Washington upheld all the regulations, prompting challengers to seek high court review.
Although there are various ways the court could rule, a loss for the EPA could remove a whole category of pollutants, not just greenhouse gases, from the so-called “prevention of serious deterioration” or PSD program, which requires any new or modified major polluting facility to obtain a permit before any new construction is done if it emits “any air pollutant.”
Under the program, the operators have to show they are using the best available technology available to reduce emissions of the covered pollutants. So far, 335 facilities have applied for permits that include greenhouse gas requirements, an EPA official said.
The regulations are being defended not just by the Obama administration, but also by 15 states and various environmental groups.
One utility, Calpine Corp, which operates natural gas and geothermal plants, also backed the government by filing a friend-of-the-court brief saying the regulations are not a heavy and costly burden.