The issue of climate change is being debated in the nation's highest court again. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments challenging the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to decide how it regulates carbon emissions.
The case centers around the EPA's implementation of the Clean Air Act, which gives the agency authority to regulate air pollutants. A 2007 Supreme Court case expanded the agency's authority to greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.
The problems set in when the EPA decided to target power plant emissions. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate any source producing more than 100 tons of pollution in a year. But after crunching the numbers, the agency realized it would have to target 6.1 billion facilities across the country ranging from hospitals to colleges to apartment complexes. Instead of trying to implement that program, the EPA changed its policies to restrict only facilities which produced more than 75,000 tons of carbon a year. (Via Flickr / glennia, Wikimedia Commons / Staplegunther, Cgord)
The EPA's challengers argue the agency overstepped its bounds and rewrote the law without the approval of Congress. "If the EPA has the authority to alter the statute in this way, there is nothing to stop it from changing the thresholds again sometime in the future. ... The Court should put a stop to this administration’s thirst for unlimited discretion and the asserted power to ignore the law." (Via National Review)
"A number of members of Congress did file a brief in this case saying its one of the biggest power grabs an administrative agency or the executive branch has ever made." (Via Fox News)
But the agency's defenders, including the editorial board at The New York Times, argue the EPA has always had some say in how it interprets the law.
"The E.P.A. is well within its authority to interpret the law as broadly as it has. It was written that way four decades ago, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly and properly construed the agency's powers broadly. This time is no different."
Now, the Court's decision probably won't have a dramatic impact on the EPA's actual policy on greenhouse gases.
And an industry lawyer told NPR the decision won't affect the agency's other tools to combat climate change. "This is a very narrow case. I think the outcome won't really have much of an impact one way or another on the EPA's ability to regulate carbon."
A SCOTUSblog writer points out the Court intentionally limited how far its ruling in this case would go. "The Court has not assigned itself the task of reexamining whether greenhouse gases are a form of air pollution, whether they are dangerous to health and safety, or whether the government can regulate them under the Clean Air Act."
But an Al Jazeera reporter says the Court's decision will have a significant political impact on the Obama administration, which has promised executive actions similar to the one up for debate.
"This gets to a symbolic issue of whether President Obama and his administration can go ahead and tighten regulations using that authority that the President's talked about so much over the last couple of months, his pen and his phone."
Monday's hearing is the second big environmental issue to come before the court this term. In December, justices heard arguments about the EPA's ability to assess and regulate emissions from upwind states which could pollute downwind states.