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Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Landmark Case on Global Warming

Carbon Dioxide Appeal May Be Most Important Environmental Case in Court History

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The U.S. Supreme Court today [June 26, 2006] agreed to hear an appeal by 12 states, three cities, one territory, and many of the nation’s leading environmental groups aimed at forcing the U.S. government to regulate carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming.

A Landmark Environmental Case
Many observers are saying this may be the most important environmental case the Supreme Court has ever considered. At the heart of the case, the justices will be deciding whether the Bush administration’s policy of forgoing regulation and relying on voluntary measures to curb global warming are legal under the Clean Air Act. The decision is expected to have far-reaching ramifications in terms of how much authority governments at all levels can exercise in the effort to reduce global warming.

"This is the whole ball of wax. This will determine whether the Environmental Protection Agency is to regulate greenhouse gases from cars and whether EPA can regulate carbon dioxide from power plants," said David Bookbinder, Senior Attorney for the Sierra Club, in an interview with The Associated Press.

Bush Administration Denies Authority and Responsibility
Despite the dangers of global warming, and the role carbon dioxide plays in creating the greenhouse effect, the Bush administration claims the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has no authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act because the carbon dioxide is not a pollutant.

The Bush administration’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act concerning carbon dioxide and global warming runs counter to an earlier EPA interpretation during the Clinton administration. That difference helped to spark the original lawsuit and gives weight to the current appeal.

"The Bush Administration has continually tried to say that it's not their job to fight global warming. In fact, they have both the legal and moral responsibility to tackle global warming pollution," Bookbinder said in a Sierra Club press release about the appeal.

Not everyone agrees: "Fundamentally, we don't think carbon dioxide is a pollutant, and so we don't think these attempts are a good idea," said John Felmy, chief economist of the American Petroleum Institute (API), in an interview with The Associated Press. API is a trade group that represents the interests of oil and gas companies.

In a split decision in July 2005, a lower court ruling backed the administration’s position. The states, cities and environmental groups that brought the suit then asked the Supreme Court to hear the appeal. The appeal will come before the Supreme Court sometime during the next session, which begins October 2006.

Provisions of the Clean Air Act
The appellants say the Clean Air Act not only authorizes the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, but requires the agency to do so:

  • The Clean Air Act says an "air pollutant" is any "physical, chemical, biological, [or] radioactive substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air."
  • The Clean Air Act authorizes EPA to regulate any power plant pollutant that the agency determines to "cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare." The Act specifically defines "welfare" to include adverse effects on "weather" and "climate."

"It's just plain English and common sense," said David Doniger, policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Center, in a press release on the NRDC Web site. "Carbon dioxide is an air pollutant, and curbing the pollution that causes global warming is EPA's job under the Clean Air Act."

The states challenging the EPA's decision are California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. American Samoa and the District of Columbia are also named in today's petition. The cities of Baltimore and New York filed a separate petition.

Environmental Groups joining the challenge are Bluewater Network, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Center for Technology Assessment, Conservation Law Foundation, Environmental Advocates, Environmental Defense, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, National Environmental Trust, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists and U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

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