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High court tells EPA to rethink policy on emissions

Mass. led case against agency

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said the decision was long in coming but 'really groundbreaking.' Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said the decision was long in coming but "really groundbreaking." (MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF)

In a defeat for the Bush administration, the US Supreme Court ruled yesterday that greenhouse gases are pollutants and ordered federal environmental officials to reconsider their refusal to limit emissions from new cars and trucks.

The justices' 5-to-4 decision did not go so far as to require the US Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the emission of heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide from motor vehicles. Rather, the court directed the agency to take a new look at the gases. If officials determine the gases contribute to global warming and therefore harm human health, the agency should regulate them under the federal Clean Air Act or provide some reasonable explanation why it will not, the court said.

"In short, EPA has offered no reasoned explanation for its refusal to decide whether greenhouse gases cause or contribute to climate change," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.

Massachusetts was the lead plaintiff in the case, brought by 12 states and 13 environmental groups and argued by James R. Milkey of the Massachusetts attorney general's office. The ruling is the high court's first on global warming and is expected to have far-reaching implications for regulating greenhouse gases in the United States. It comes at a time of rapid transition in attitudes about climate change in Washington, as Democrats have gained control of Congress and a flurry of bills have been filed to reduce or deal with the effects of climate change.

The EPA had argued that the Clean Air Act did not give it authority to regulate greenhouse gases and that there was "scientific uncertainty" about the effect of climate change on human health. The agency also said that even if it did have that authority, it would not regulate the gases because that would interfere with the Bush administration's voluntary efforts to reduce global warming. The EPA also does not regulate greenhouse gases from power plants, the other key source of heat-trapping emissions.

Climate change policy specialists said it will now be difficult for the EPA to contend that heat-trapping gases do not contribute to global warming and therefore harm human health: In the eight years since the case was brought, evidence of the connection has mounted. Two months ago, the United States endorsed a scientific statement that concluded that there was more than 90 percent certainty that the recent increase in global temperatures was mostly caused by manmade releases of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. A related report being published Friday is expected to describe the effects of a warming world, including increases in disease, more precipitation, and dwindling water supplies.

Even the EPA's website discusses human health problems from more extreme weather conditions and rising temperatures the world is expected to experience in coming years.

"It is unimaginable that they could refuse to regulate on [any grounds] that would withstand the giggle test," said Seth Kaplan, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, an advocacy group and one of the parties that joined Massachusetts in the lawsuit. "We argued a case that was frozen in time -- there is even more mountains of evidence that the EPA will have to look at now."

While several types of gases contribute to global warming, carbon dioxide is the main one that environmental groups seek to control in cars and power plants.

The EPA released a statement saying it is reviewing the decision. "The Bush administration has an unparalleled financial, international, and domestic commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions," it said, adding that the administration is pursuing voluntary efforts to prevent emissions and has spent more than $35 billion on climate change programs -- "more than any other country in the world."

A jubilant Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley held a press conference yesterday, saying the decision was long in coming but very welcome.

"It's really groundbreaking," Coakley said in a phone interview. "The decision says to the Bush administration, 'look, you guys have a job to do and you are not doing it' . . . EPA can no longer hide behind the fiction that it lacks any regulatory authority to address the problem of global warming."

The case began in 1999 when environmental groups asked the EPA to set motor vehicle emissions standards for greenhouse gases. Four years later, the EPA denied the request, and Massachusetts appealed the decision in federal court, along with the other parties. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, and oral arguments were held in late November.

Yesterday, Stevens was joined in the majority by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, and Anthony Kennedy. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas dissented.

Most of the dissent centered on whether individual states could use the federal courts to address their complaints. Roberts wrote that Congress and the executive branch, not the courts, should address the states' concerns about the EPA's lack of regulation. He stressed that his position involves "no judgment" on global warming.

The ruling is expected to strengthen efforts by California and other states -- including most New England states -- to enact their own greenhouse gas rules for motor vehicles. Automakers have sued California, Vermont, Rhode Island, and other states over those plans, arguing in part that the EPA does not qualify greenhouse gases as pollutants under the federal Clean Air Act.

Yesterday's ruling that greenhouse gases are pollutants severely weakens that argument, and may result in automakers pushing for a federal policy for greenhouse gas emissions rather than deal with varying standards from states, specialists said. If rules were passed, it would probably come in the form of tighter fuel economy standards. Those standards would reduce gasoline use, and therefore its byproduct of carbon dioxide, in vehicles.

"This ruling implies that states have a right to protect their citizens from harm," said Henry Lee, director of the Environment and Natural Resources program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. "This is one of the most important environmental decisions ever from the Supreme Court."

Reaction from industry was swift . Dave McCurdy, president and CEO of the The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents some of the nation's biggest car companies, posted a comment on the group's website calling for a "national, federal, economy-wide approach to addressing greenhouse gases."

Thomas F. Reilly, the former Massachusetts attorney general who is now in private practice after a gubernatorial bid, was pleased yesterday.

"It's a great feeling. . . . Someone had to stand up and force the EPA to do their jobs," Reilly said, adding it felt "really good to have the little state of Massachusetts" as the one to do it.

Beth Daley can be reached by email at bdaley@globe.com.

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