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Ruling Undermines Lawsuits Opposing Emissions Controls

By Felicity Barringer (The New York Times) - April 3, 2007

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on carbon dioxide emissions largely shredded the underpinning of other lawsuits trying to block regulation of the emissions and gave new momentum to Congressional efforts to control heat-trapping gases linked to climate change.

Environmental groups and states that have adopted controls on carbon dioxide emissions from vehicle tailpipes responded with jubilation, while the auto industry and some of its backers, like Representative John D. Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, offered statements of resigned disappointment.

“This is fantastic news,” said Ian Bowles, the secretary of environmental affairs for Massachusetts, the state that had petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to control the emissions from cars and trucks, which represent slightly less than one-quarter of the country’s total heat-trapping gases.

The E.P.A. had argued that it had no authority to do so under the Clean Air Act, and that even if it did, such regulation would run afoul of other administration plans to combat climate change. The Supreme Court rejected those arguments.

“You’ve seen the Bush administration hiding behind this argument to avoid action, and this puts that to rest,” Mr. Bowles said.

Pennsylvania’s secretary of environmental protection, Kathleen McGinty, added, “We hope it means any further opposition and challenge to the legal standards will go away and we can get about the job of cleaning up the auto fleet and making a dent in greenhouse-gas pollution.”

The arguments rejected by the court have been invoked in other legal challenges, including a case pending in California in which auto industry trade groups argue against that state’s law controlling carbon-dioxide emissions from cars, and one in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where electric utilities are fighting the E.P.A.’s authority to regulate their emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide.

Both cases had been stayed awaiting yesterday’s ruling.

Some companies may now find new affection for proposals in Congress for a cap-and-trade system to aid emissions control. Under this type of system, companies that had reduced emissions beyond a set limit could sell credits earned by their excess reductions to companies that failed to meet emissions limits.

“This flips the debate from an environment in which Congress must act if there is to be federal action,” said Tim Profeta, the director of the Nicholas Institute for the Environment at Duke University, “to one in which the E.P.A. can act as soon as an administration friendly to the concept is in power.”

“If there is a President Clinton or President McCain,” Mr. Profeta added, “he or she doesn’t have to go to Congress to get action.”

The reaction from Capitol Hill underscored this point.

“While I still believe Congress did not intend for the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases, the Supreme Court has made its decision and the matter is now settled,” Mr. Dingell said in a prepared statement. “Today’s ruling provides another compelling reason why Congress must enact, and the president must sign, comprehensive climate change legislation.”

Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California and a sponsor of the most stringent of the global-warming proposals currently before Congress, said in a statement: “This decision puts the wind at our back. It takes away the excuse the administration has been using for not taking action to deal with global-warming pollution.”

Another prod for federal action is the likelihood that California will be able to use the new ruling to parry legal challenges to its new law calling for a cut of nearly 30 percent in carbon dioxide emissions on passenger vehicles sold in the state starting in 2016. A dozen other states, including Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, have enacted laws adopting the California standard. These states are home to more than a third of the vehicles sold in the United States.

But before those standards can take effect, the environmental agency must grant the states a waiver.

“I am very encouraged by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision today that greenhouse gases are pollutants and should be regulated by the federal government,” said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, a Republican. “We expect the U.S. E.P.A. to move quickly now in granting our request for a waiver.”

The prospect of separate state and federal emissions standards is one of Detroit’s worst nightmares.

Walter McManus, director of automotive analysis for the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan, argued that the environmental agency was best suited to regulate automotive emissions and fuel economy.

“They are the ones who really have the expertise about fuel economy and greenhouse gases,” Mr. McManus said.