The U.S. Supreme Court correctly affirmed the crackdown on greenhouse gas emissions with this week's ruling that is good for public health, energy policy and the nation's natural resources. The decision further establishes the federal government's authority to address the harmful impacts of climate change with sensible regulations. And it offers another reason why Congress, the states and private industry should get serious about addressing climate change on a national scale.
The 7-2 opinion came in a case that questioned the Environmental Protection Agency's latitude in enforcing rules requiring clean-air permits. The court ruled that the EPA could regulate greenhouse gas emissions from conventional, big polluters — such as power plants and oil refineries — that already are required to get permits. The ruling was another victory in the effort to limit emissions of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas emission, which accounts for about 82 percent of all greenhouse releases. And it marks another important step as the Obama administration looks to significantly reduce emissions by 2030.
The court dealt a blow to the EPA in part of the case, ruling 5-4 that the agency had overstepped by rewriting standards that had the effect of exempting smaller polluters from the regulations. Though the agency was looking out for small business, the move clearly pre-empted the authority of Congress. And the court could have left a regulatory framework in place that subjected millions of mom-and-pops and other small businesses to an unnecessarily burdensome process. The justices effectively balanced the scales by limiting carbon restrictions to those already subject to permits for conventional pollution. But it sent a clear warning shot as the agency looks to enforce a broad clean-air regimen without clear direction from Congress.
Monday's decision is the latest in string of high court victories that clarifies the EPA's authority to regulate air pollution. That will be a key tool as the nation moves forward, and the legal cover it provides stands in sharp contrast to the credibility of skeptics who deny the science behind global change. The court ruling comes as a new report embraced by a bipartisan alliance of statesmen who served in Washington for years warns of the urgent need to act.
Still, the court has recognized the lack of clear congressional direction for the cleanup effort — the reason President Barack Obama has decided to move on his own through executive action. The cleanest approach remains a straightforward national tax on carbon as part of a congressionally approved strategy to wean America off the dirtiest fuels, spark investment in clean energy production and reduce consumption.
Monday's ruling buys some time, shores up the administration's efforts and offers some certainty to the private sector in the absence of any overarching federal plan. But it remains another element of the piecemeal approach to this country's 21st century energy policy when Congress should provide a more comprehensive plan.