Justices rebuke Bush on climate

EPA has authority to regulate emissions, court rules in lawsuit joined by Baltimore

April 03, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

Baltimore and 12 states won a victory in a battle to limit global warming yesterday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government has the power to regulate greenhouse gases.

The 5-4 decision was a rebuke to the Bush administration, which had argued that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must regulate under the Clean Air Act.

But Baltimore, following the lead of Massachusetts, New York, California and other states (although not Maryland), argued that the law requires the EPA to set limits for any emissions that contribute to climate change.

The case focused on pollution from new cars and trucks. But the implications could be wider, affecting the government's ability to regulate heat-trapping gases from a variety of sources, attorneys for the plaintiffs argued.

"Because greenhouse gases fit well within the act's capacious definition of `air pollutant,' EPA has statutory authority to regulate emissions of such gases from motor vehicles," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. The EPA "can avoid promulgating regulations only if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change."

The ruling does not direct the EPA to start regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But it requires the federal agency to go back and reconsider its denial of a 1999 petition by an environmental group to start limiting the pollutants.

The EPA will have to either begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions or come up with a legally justifiable explanation for why it thinks these gases do not contribute to global warming, according to the court decision.

A panel of 2,500 scientists from around the world released a report in February concluding that there is more than a 90 percent certainty that global warming is caused by human activity. Rising temperatures are melting glaciers and expanding the seas, increasing damage from storms in coastal areas.

The Supreme Court case was the first that Baltimore has joined in decades.

The city argued that it has a compelling interest in limiting global warming because at least 860 buildings near the Inner Harbor could be flooded by rising sea levels, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

"We are always happy to win a case," said Bill Phelan, principal counsel for Baltimore's law department. "Being a coastal city, we stand to lose a lot if the water continues to rise. ... In those spaces that could end up underwater are a lot of industries, residential areas and parks."

Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said limiting greenhouse gases is important because global warming is helping to spread low-oxygen "dead zones" in the bay. Record-breaking temperatures are also killing underwater eelgrasses in the southern bay that are a critical habitat for crabs and other marine life.

"This is extremely important for Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay," Baker said of the court's ruling. "The connection between global warming and global climate change and the health of the bay is absolute."

David Bookbinder, director of climate litigation for the Sierra Club, said the implications of the case, Massachusetts v. EPA, extends far beyond emissions from cars.

"This gives the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gases from everything," including power plants and factories, said Bookbinder, whose group was among 13 environmental organizations that joined the lawsuit.

Bookbinder said he expects the Bush administration will "run out the clock" and continue to delay action on global warming for the next two years. But with this ruling, the next president will have the power to regulate emissions from greenhouse gases. This threat should force Congress to pass global warming legislation as well as compel industry to agree to limits, he said.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican from Maryland's Eastern Shore, said the court's ruling "puts Congress in the hot seat."

"The legislative branch can lead the debate over how this nation rises to the greatest economic and environmental challenge of our time, or Congress can let lawyers, judges and federal agency bureaucrats decide," he said.

Gilchrest and Rep. John W. Olver, a Massachusetts Democrat, have introduced a Climate Stewardship Act with 120 co-sponsors that would cut greenhouse gas emissions to 70 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Jennifer Wood, a spokeswoman for the EPA, said the Bush administration is "reviewing the court's decision to determine the appropriate course of action."

Wood said the administration's approach to climate change has been to urge voluntarily reductions in greenhouse gases. She said this approach is "helping achieve reductions now while saving millions of dollars, as well as providing clean, affordable energy."

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