WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court largely left intact Monday the Obama administration’s only existing program to limit power plant and factory emissions of the gases blamed for global warming. But a divided court also rebuked environmental regulators for taking too much authority into their own hands without congressional approval.
The justices said in a 5-4 vote along ideological lines that the Environmental Protection Agency cannot apply a permitting provision of the Clean Air Act to new and expanded power plants, refineries and factories solely because they emit greenhouse gases.
The decision underscores the limits of using the Clean Air Act to deal with greenhouse gases and the administration’s inability to get climate change legislation through Congress.
“The Supreme Court put EPA on a leash but not in a noose,” said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University’s Center for Climate Change Law.
“It reaffirmed that EPA can regulate greenhouse gases, but it can only go so far in reinterpreting the statute,” Gerrard said. “The court invalidated a small corner of a secondary program. The main event — EPA’s proposed rules on existing power plants — remains to be fought another day.”
The EPA and many environmental advocates said the ruling would not affect the agency’s proposals for first-time national standards for new and existing power plants. The most recent proposal aims at a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants by 2030, but won’t take effect for at least another two years.
The justices warned that the regulation of greenhouse gases is not automatic under every program of the Clean Air Act as the administration had assumed it was. Similar logic is driving the EPA’s other actions on global-warming pollution.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for his conservative colleagues, said EPA could not “just rewrite the statute” to bring greenhouse gases under a provision dealing with expanded and new facilities that would increase the overall amount of air pollution. Under the program, companies must evaluate ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in order to get a permit to build. Carbon dioxide is the chief gas linked to global warming.
But by a wider, 7-2 margin, the court preserved EPA’s authority over facilities that already emit pollutants that the agency regulates, other than greenhouse gases.
“EPA is getting almost everything it wanted in this case,” Scalia said. He said the agency wanted to regulate 86 percent of all greenhouse gases emitted from plants nationwide, and it will be able to regulate 83 percent of the emissions under the ruling.
Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas said they would go farther and bar all regulation of greenhouse gases under the permitting program.
The EPA called the decision “a win for our efforts to reduce carbon pollution because it allows EPA, states and other permitting authorities to continue to require carbon pollution limits in permits for the largest pollution sources.”
The agency said that, as of late March, 166 permits have been issued by state and federal regulators since 2011.
Permits have been issued to power plants, but also to plants that produce chemicals, cement, iron and steel, fertilizer, ceramics and ethanol. Oil refineries and municipal landfills also have obtained greenhouse gas permits since 2011, EPA said.
The utility industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and 13 states led by Texas had asked the court to rule that the EPA overstepped its authority by trying to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through the permitting program. The administration failed to get climate change legislation through Congress.
Although the court was divided on several issues in the case, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said Oklahoma and other states won a “key victory” in challenging the EPA’s attempt to expand its authority under the Clean Air Act.
“While the EPA serves an important role in protecting our environment, the agency continues its aggressive drive to expand its authority over the lives of Americans,” Pruitt said in a statement. “In its ruling, the Supreme Court noted that even the EPA recognized these regulations would be an ‘unprecedented expansion of EPA authority that would have a profound effect on virtually every sector of the economy and touch every household in the land’ while still only proving to be ‘relatively ineffective at reducing greenhouse gas concentrations.’”
CONTRIBUTING: Paul Monies, Business Writer