The Supreme Court stood up for the environment in two major court rulings Monday. One gives the Environmental Protection Agency the go-ahead to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The second ruling sends a rebuke to the owners of dirty coal-fired power plants.
It was kind of like when Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz learned she always had the power to go home. The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Environmental Protection Agency does, in fact, have the authority to regulate the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
Bush administration officials had argued that the agency didn't have that power — and so the EPA couldn't require cars to reduce emissions. Several states and environmental groups sued the EPA, arguing that the agency did have that power and should use it.
Law professor Lisa Heinzerling from Georgetown University represented the states. She says the ruling has implications not just for car emissions but for power plants, factories and other sources of greenhouse gases.
"It's a huge deal, it's hard to overstate the importance of this," Heinzerling said.
The ruling does not require the EPA to regulate. But Heinzerling says for the EPA to avoid regulating, it would have to show that these emissions don't endanger public health or welfare.
"I think it will be extremely difficult, and I would venture to say impossible for them to conclude based on the scientific evidence we have that you cannot anticipate that greenhouse gases will endanger public health or welfare," Heinzerling said.
EPA officials declined an interview with NPR. An EPA press release says the agency is reviewing the court ruling. The ruling could put the EPA in a difficult position because so far, President Bush has rejected mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
In the meantime, environmentalists and state officials say the ruling opens the door for states to move ahead with regulating greenhouse gas emissions from cars. A dozen states, led by California, have adopted or are in the process of adopting such rules. They need the EPA's OK to go ahead. And Heinzerling says the Supreme Court ruling will make it hard for EPA officials to say no.
"I can't imagine that they wouldn't," she said. "I don't see any legal basis for refusing to allow California and other states to enact standards after this ruling."
The main auto industry trade group wouldn't comment on the ruling. But Dan Riedinger from Edison Electric Institute says his industry doesn't want the EPA to set standards.
"If greenhouse gases are going to be regulated, and obviously a lot of people think that's inevitable, we would far rather that come from the U.S. Congress," Riedinger said.
The other big Supreme Court decision could also have a big impact on power plants and their pollution. Attorney Blan Holman from the Southern Environmental Law Center worked on the case for environmental groups.
"The case is all about old coal-fired power plants and what happens when you rebuild them," Holman said. "Do you have to put air pollution controls on them or do you not?"
Holman's talking about the equipment that filters out fine particles and smog from smoke stacks. They cause thousands of early deaths and many emergency room visits every year.
The EPA, environmental groups and states are suing several power companies for failing to install pollution controls. In this case, the Supreme Court decided against Duke Energy.
"It's a major set back to the case and it's something that is regrettable to us, but it is not shutting down the case by any means," said Tom Williams, who represents Duke.
The Supreme Court was deciding whether annual emissions or hourly emissions are the deciding factor when measuring if emissions have increased and thus pollution controls should be installed. The Supreme Court says annual emissions are what matters. But the power companies have other ways to defend their actions.
"It's our contention in this case that we did nothing wrong in the first place, and that is why we're going to continue to press this in the lower courts," Williams said.
But environmentalists say the ruling will provide a strong incentive to clean up many of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the country. And they say that both rulings together suggest that the Supreme Court is far greener than anyone realized.