WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court cleared the way Monday for a more aggressive attack by government on global warming, which could include the first national rules to limit carbon dioxide emissions from new cars, trucks and power plants.
In a 5-4 decision, the court rebuked the Bush administration and ruled that greenhouse gases – such as carbon dioxide – are air pollutants subject to federal regulation.
Bush and his aides, allied with automakers, argued that federal officials did not have the power to set mandatory limits on emissions of the gases.
A concerted federal effort to restrict greenhouse gases may not occur until the White House changes hands in January 2009. But at the least, the ruling knocked down a legal barrier that stood in the way of plans by several states, including Washington, to require reduced carbon emissions by new vehicles, starting in 2009.
The rise in the emissions of greenhouse gases has been linked by a group of scientists to a steady and potentially catastrophic rise in air temperatures. However, the administration maintained that the gases were not air pollutants as defined by the Clean Air Act.
That measure, passed in the 1970s, targeted specific pollutants, such as lead, that cause dirty air.
In its Monday ruling, the Supreme Court majority agreed that global warming represents a different kind of air-pollution problem. Gases such as carbon dioxide, once released into the atmosphere, “act like a ceiling of a greenhouse, trapping solar energy and retarding the escape of reflected heat,” the court said.
The majority opinion, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, stated that the Clean Air Act said the Environmental Protection Agency shall regulate the emission of “any air pollutant” that is likely “to endanger public health or welfare.”
He noted that the word “welfare” is defined broadly to include “effects on the climate and weather.”
In scolding the EPA for not moving to regulate greenhouse gases, he said that the emissions fit well within the law’s definition of air pollutants and that the agency “has the statutory authority to regulate the emission of such gases from new motor vehicles.”
The court did not say EPA must set national emissions standards for vehicles. But it made clear the agency must make its case if it chooses not to act.
“Under the clear terms of the (law), EPA can avoid taking further action only if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change or it provides some reasonable explanation” why regulations are not needed, Stevens said.
New regulations limiting greenhouse gases would probably force automakers to produce vehicles that burn less gasoline.
Concurring with Stevens’ opinion in the case were Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
Disagreeing were the court’s four most consistently conservative members: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito.
Roberts, in his dissent, said that even though global warming may be “the most pressing environmental issue of our time,” how to deal with it should be resolved by Congress and the president, not the court.
Automakers have said that they are producing more fuel-efficient vehicles but that federal limits on emissions would put them at a competitive disadvantage.
Stevens, in his majority opinion, specifically rejected the “laundry list of reasons not to regulate” that the Bush administration put forth.
They included the assertion that regulations on emissions by new autos “might impair the president’s ability’s to negotiate with ‘key developing nations’ to reduce emissions.”
Stevens said, “While the president had broad authority in foreign affairs, that authority does not extend to the refusal to execute domestic laws.”
The ruling arose from an unusual lawsuit. Twelve states – led by Massachusetts and California – sued the Bush administration after the EPA refused to take action on greenhouse gases.
The other states were: Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Environmental groups joined the suit, as well.
Detainees get setback
Detainees at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were dealt a setback Monday by the Supreme Court, which refused – for now – to hear their claim that they were being denied the right to habeas corpus that is protected by the Constitution.
This right to go before a judge to determine whether detention is lawful is considered a fundamental principle of American law, and the Constitution says this privilege of habeas corpus “shall not be suspended” except during invasions or insurrections.
But the reach of this right remains in doubt. Bush administration lawyers say the right to habeas corpus does not extend to foreign-born prisoners held by the U.S. military outside the nation’s borders.
On Monday, the justices voted 6-3 against taking up the issue in the current term.