By Valerie Volcovici and Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON Oct 15 The U.S. Supreme Court agreed
on Tuesday to hear a challenge to part of the Obama
administration's first wave of regulations aimed at tackling
climate change, accepting its biggest environmental case in six
The court said it would not review the underlying
determination that greenhouse gases are a public health concern
or a separate regulation that limits greenhouse gas emissions
from motor vehicles.
The single question the court will consider is whether the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency correctly determined that
its decision to regulate motor vehicle emissions automatically
gave it the authority to regulate emissions from stationary
sources such as power plants and oil refineries.
Industry groups applauded the high court for considering
placing a check on what they call regulatory overreach while
environmentalists took comfort from the narrowness of the
question the court agreed to consider.
Oral arguments are likely to be heard early in the new year
with a ruling issued by the end of June.
Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator, said in a statement
that the court was taking up a "very narrow legal question" that
would not substantially weaken the Obama administration's
EPA regulations are among President Barack Obama's most
significant measures to address climate change.
A federal appeals court in Washington upheld the rules,
issued by the EPA under the Clean Air Act, in 2012. The
regulations allowed for greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions from a
wide range of sources to be regulated for the first time.
By agreeing to hear a consolidated challenge from states and
business groups, the court could be getting set to limit the
reach of its groundbreaking 2007 ruling, Massachusetts v. EPA,
in which it held on a 5-4 vote that carbon was a pollutant that
could potentially be regulated under the Clean Air Act.
The court rejected outright three of the nine petitions that
sought Supreme Court review, including one filed by Virginia
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican, that questioned
whether the EPA appropriately weighed climate change science.
The legal question, crafted by the court itself from those
raised in the six petitions it agreed to review, indicates the
court does not plan to revisit the underlying reasoning behind
Massachusetts v. EPA but will weigh whether the EPA went further
than allowed under the act.
Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve
University in Ohio, said the court did not dispute the
scientific basis underpinning the EPA'S greenhouse gas
regulations or its industry-backed vehicle emissions standards,
but focused on the most legally shaky challenges buried in the
The legal question is "appropriately limited," Adler said.
SOMETHING FOR BOTH SIDES
Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of
Commerce, which filed one of the petitions the court agreed to
hear, said the group has from the beginning argued "that the
Clean Air Act is the wrong vehicle to regulate greenhouse gases
and that EPA exceeded its regulatory authority under the act."
Eric Groten, a partner at law firm Vinson and Elkins, which
represents the industry-backed Coalition for Responsible
Regulation, said the court's acceptance of some of the petitions
raises the key question of how easily the EPA can use its
authority to regulate greenhouse gases.
"This bodes well for efforts to cauterize the damage, as the
court will consider whether EPA needs to legally and factually
justify each action taken to regulate GHG, or whether it can
just wave Massachusetts v. EPA as a magic wand and conjure what
it wishes," Groten said. His client's petition was one of those
Environmental lawyers stressed that because the justices
will assess only one of the many legal questions raised in the
petitions, it will only have a limited impact on EPA's broader
goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the biggest
contributor to climate change.
U.S. natural gas futures were little changed on Tuesday
despite the news. Prices matched Monday's nearly four-month spot
chart high of $3.855 per mmBtu in overnight trading before being
hit by some profit-taking. The most current contract is
up more than 9 percent in just over a week.
Tuesday's decision does not affect the agency's ability to
require power plants to install the best available technology to
reduce emissions. It could, though, impede the EPA's ability to
require new or modified facilities, such as refineries or power
plants, to obtain emissions permits.
Come June, the EPA is due to propose a major rule that would
limit the amount of greenhouse gases the country's existing
fleet of more than 1,000 power plants can emit.
The American Petroleum Institute, a lobbying group that
along with manufacturing interests filed one of the petitions,
said the fact that EPA regulations for cars automatically
triggered further regulation of other sources of greenhouse gas
emissions was an "overstep" of the agency's authority under the
Clean Air Act.
"The EPA is seeking to regulate U.S. manufacturing in a way
that Congress never planned and never intended," said Harry Ng,
American Petroleum Institute vice president and general counsel.
Whatever the court eventually decides, the EPA's ability to
use the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions from power plants
and other stationary sources is not under threat, environmental
Even if the court ruled for petitioners, most power plants
and refineries would still be required to install best available
control technology to limit greenhouse gases, said Sean Donahue,
a lawyer representing environmental groups at Donahue &