WASHINGTON — A fractured Supreme Court on Monday limited, but didn’t eliminate, the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate certain greenhouse gas emissions.
In a 5-4 decision that was both complex and restrained, the court declared that the EPA can’t require stationary polluters to get permits solely because they might emit greenhouse gases. This would cover too many small greenhouse gas sources such as schools and churches, the majority reasoned.
“We think it beyond reasonable debate that requiring permits for sources based solely on their emissions of greenhouse gases ... would be incompatible with the substance of Congress’ regulatory scheme,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.
At the same time, the court agreed that for large polluters that already are regulated for non-greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA can require the use of so-called best available control technology.
“Applying BACT to greenhouse gases is not so disastrously unworkable, and need not result in such a dramatic expansion of agency authority, as to convince us that EPA’s interpretation is unreasonable,” Scalia wrote.
Scalia stressed that the ruling Monday would leave unregulated only a small percentage of additional greenhouse-gas polluters. By some estimates, the EPA will still be able to regulate 83 percent of stationary source greenhouse-gas emissions. Had the agency won, it would have been able to regulate 86 percent of the emissions.
“You’re talking about a relatively small slice of stationary source emissions,” noted environmental attorney Sean H. Donahue, who argued the case before a lower appeals court.The ruling doesn’t affect other Obama administration proposals to control greenhouse gases under different Clean Air Act provisions.
Significantly, the court reaffirmed by 7-2 an earlier decision concerning the EPA’s underlying power to regulate greenhouse gasses. The overall end result pleased business but also relieved environmentalists, who’d feared a more sweeping loss. The EPA welcomed the ruling.
“It bears mentioning that EPA is getting almost everything it wanted it in this case,” Scalia said from the bench Monday.
American Petroleum Institute General Counsel Harry Ng praised the decision as “a stark reminder that the EPA’s power is not unlimited,” while Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt said “the Supreme Court’s move to limit the EPA’s overreach is a step in the right direction.”