Historic Global Warming Case Goes to Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on November 29th in a historic case over the power of the federal government to limit global warming pollution under the Clean Air Act. The Bush Administration opposes the legal position of 18 states, leading climate scientists, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a bipartisan group of former EPA administrators, Entergy and Calpine Corporations, and numerous health and environmental organizations. The legal challenge is Massachusetts, et al. v. EPA, et al., No. 05-1120. Environmental Defense is a party to the case.

"The Clean Air Act plainly gives the federal government the power to regulate greenhouse gas pollution, as surely as the Safe Drinking Water Act allows the government to regulate arsenic in drinking water," said Environmental Defense President Fred Krupp. "The only real question here is whether the government will use the power the Clean Air Act clearly provides, instead of dodging its responsibility."

The case arises from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's denial of a petition to regulate global warming pollution from new motor vehicles. EPA reasoned that global warming pollution did not constitute an "air pollutant" within the meaning of the federal Clean Air Act. But the term "air pollutant" is expansively defined in the Act to encompass any "substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air."

The federal government also claims that the states and environmental organizations are not injured by global warming pollution, although substantial evidence demonstrates serious and direct effects on human health and the environment.

The U.S. transportation sector currently releases some 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions each year. The Energy Information Administration forecasts that global warming pollution from this sector will soar to 2.7 billion tons annually in 2030. U.S. motor vehicles, only part of the overall transportation sector emissions, are responsible for 23 percent of the nation's carbon dioxide pollution and 6 percent of carbon dioxide pollution worldwide.

The disposition of this case will have immediate consequences for parallel litigation in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., over EPA's refusal to limit global warming from new coal-fired power plants. In February 2006, EPA finalized national emission standards for new coal-fired power plants and refused to include global warming pollution, invoking the same legal theory in question here. A coalition of state and environmental organizations, including Environmental Defense, filed a legal challenge. That challenge is now held in abeyance pending the outcome of Massachusetts, et al. v. EPA. Currently, the power sector discharges some 2.5 billion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions each year. The Energy Information Administration forecasts that these pollution discharges will increase a staggering one billion tons annually by 2030.

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