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Supreme Court backs EPA over states on climate change

By Wendy Koch (USA Today) - June 20, 2011

The Supreme Court unanimously rejected Monday a lawsuit by six states that were suing five major power companies for emitting greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

In a victory for the utilities and President Obama’s administration, the high court ruled the Environmental Protection Agency — not the courts — should place restrictions on such heat-trapping emissions. It reversed a ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York that would have allowed federal judges to issue restrictions.

“The critical point is that Congress delegated to EPA the decision whether and how to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants; the delegation is what displaces federal common law,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in a decision on behalf of the court, which voted 8-0 against the states. Justice Sonia Sotomayor recused herself, because she had sat on the appeals court panel that heard the case. Ginsburg also said the states and conservation groups can go to federal court if they object to EPA’s eventual rules.

The ruling was the high court’s most significant decision on climate change since 2007, when it granted EPA authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In December, EPA said it will issue new regulations this year to reduce power plants’ emissions of the primary greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

Yet EPA’s authority has been questioned by many lawmakers in the GOO-controlled House of Representatives, which passed a bill to bar the agency from moving forward.

In this case, American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, the Obama administration sided with the power companies, one of which is the Tennessee Valley Authority. The other four are American Electric Power Co. Inc, Southern Co., Xcel Energy Inc., Duke Energy Corp.

“The courts should not be in the business of legislating U.S. greenhouse gas emissions limits,” Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute said in a statement. “Today’s decision wisely removes the threat of endless and multiple lawsuits with no environmental benefit.”

The lawsuit began in 2004 when eight states said electric utilities were major polluters and sought to have a federal judge order them to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide. At the time, the Bush administration doubted the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

Eight states California, Connecticut, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin — initially filed suit, but New Jersey and Wisconsin withdrew this year after electing GOP governors.

David Doniger, the Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer who represented the conservation groups, urged EPA to issue regulations “without delay.”