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Supreme Court to Hear Texas Challenge to Greenhouse Gas Regulations

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Texas' challenge of federal regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources like power plants and factories.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
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The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Texas' challenge of federal regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources like power plants and factories, the court announced Tuesday. But it declined to hear the state's appeals of two other decisions, effectively upholding rules that limit such emissions from vehicles and maintaining the Environmental Protection Agency's assertion that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare.

Federal judges had previously knocked down efforts by Texas and several other states, along with powerful industry coalitions, to challenge the EPA's efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Should the Supreme Court justices determine otherwise after hearing oral arguments next year, there could be severe implications for rules limiting emissions from big power plants and other facilities. The EPA recently proposed rules to limit carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants, prompting critics to accuse the agency of trying to destroy the coal industry and economy while drawing praise from environmental advocates. 

At issue is whether the EPA can use the Clean Air Act, which gives it the authority to regulate emissions of toxic air pollutants and to limit emissions of greenhouse gases as well. In 2007, the court had ruled in the landmark case Massachusetts v. EPA that the EPA could do so for motor vehicles, which has led to stringent fuel-efficiency requirements for cars.

But Texas, joined by states like Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina, and industry coalitions including the American Petroleum Institute, is arguing that the Clean Air Act was never meant to apply to anything other than air pollutants, because greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane "[do] not deteriorate the quality of the air that people breathe." Attorneys representing the groups added that "carbon dioxide is virtually everywhere and in everything," and called the EPA's proposed regulations of greenhouse gases "absurd." 

Of the nine petitions the group of states and industry leaders had filed to the Supreme Court regarding its challenge of climate change rules, the justices agreed to hear six, but only want to consider one 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."

In other words: Does the fact that the EPA can regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles also give it authority to do so for facilities that don't move, like power plants and factories? More specifically, can the EPA require those facilities to apply for special permits that allow them to emit large amounts of greenhouse gases? 

Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican candidate for governor, applauded the news as a victory for Texas. "The EPA's illegal regulations threaten Texas jobs and Texas employers," he said in a statement, adding, "This is a runaway federal agency, so we are pleased the Obama administration will have to defend its lawless regulations before the U.S. Supreme Court."

Environmental advocates saw the court's decision as equally supportive of their cause. 

"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," David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote on his blog.

David Spence, a professor of law and business at the University of Texas at Austin, said it wasn't likely that the Supreme Court would forbid the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources altogether. But the justices could say it must do so based on different standards, threatening the years of work that have gone into proposing the current rules for limiting emissions from power plants and other facilities.

"The worst that could happen is they make EPA go back and do things again," Spence said. 

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