WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ordered the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday to explain why it has refused to regulate greenhouse gas pollution from cars, putting the Bush administration under pressure from an unusual coalition of environmental groups and leaders of the auto industry to move quickly on global warming.
In a 5-to-4 decision, the court rejected the administration’s argument that it had no legal authority to limit carbon dioxide released from new cars. In a ruling described as a landmark victory for environmental activists, it decided that the EPA does have such authority and that it must give better reasons for not using it than the “laundry list” of “impermissible considerations” it has offered until now.
“We have ended the administration’s denial of reality and defiance of the law,” said Richard Blumenthal, attorney general of Connecticut, one of 12 states that joined a similar number of environmental groups in suing the Bush administration for its refusal to regulate emissions tied to global warming.
In essence, the court handed the administration power it insisted it did not have and did not want. And the administration came under immediate pressure to use that power from an unlikely source as the nation’s biggest automakers joined the chorus of environmental groups and climate scientists calling for the EPA to get moving on greenhouse gases.
New tactics for auto industry
For the automakers, the ruling means a shift in tactics. With the Bush administration having lost the argument that it could not regulate carbon dioxide emissions, automakers now hope that the EPA will enact an industrywide standard before the states enact a patchwork of differing regulations or before the Democratic-controlled Congress can revise the Clean Air Act to include even stronger restrictions.
“The EPA will be part of this process,” said Dave McCurdy, chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry trade group representing General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG, Toyota Motor Corp. and five others.
“There needs to be a national, federal, economy-wide approach to addressing greenhouse gases,” McCurdy said in a statement, which acknowledged that changes in environmental regulations were probably inevitable. He said the auto industry was eager to work with Congress and the EPA to make the changes uniform and “constructive.”
The Bush administration had argued all along that Congress never gave it the power to decide whether carbon dioxide was a pollutant as defined in the federal Clean Air Act, but in an opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, the court said it did have such authority.
More important, Stevens sided in unusually strong language with scientists who say that U.S. car emissions do contribute to greenhouse gases, leading to global warming. In doing so, he rebutted the contention of some energy industry officials and Republicans in the administration and Congress that there is no proof of global warming.
The contribution of American cars to global warming is so significant, Stevens wrote, that strong regulations “would slow the pace of global emissions, no matter what happens elsewhere in the world.”
White House: ‘See where it goes from here’
The administration reacted noncommittally to the ruling.
“We questioned whether we did have the legal authority,” said Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman. “Now the Supreme Court has settled that matter for us, and we’re going to have to take a look at it and see where we go from there.”
But environmental activists hailed the ruling as a landmark and urged Congress to quickly pass tough new limits on emissions.
“This puts the spotlight on EPA and its foot-dragging and really puts Congress at the center of the debate,” said Fred Krupp, president of the nonprofit activist group Environmental Defense.
David Hawkins, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed that if the EPA still refused to act, lawmakers would have to step in.
“This case is going to send a signal to Congress that it’s time to act,” Hawkins said. “It’s going to send a signal to states that it is OK to act on global warming pollution.”
Opponents of new limits said the EPA could still claim that limits would be too expensive or might make other kinds of pollution worse.
“We may have years into the future before a finding today — that carbon dioxide is a pollutant — actually results in a regulation,” said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, which represents power utilities.
Boost for state regulators
As part of its decision, the court ruled that the 12 states did have standing to join the lawsuit, deciding, in effect, that state regulators can challenge federal environmental regulations if they can show that their states are harmed by the federal rules.
California Attorney General Jerry Brown said the decision bolstered the state’s efforts to implement the world’s toughest vehicle-emission standards. The state has been asking the EPA for authority to limit tailpipe emissions since 2005, but the agency has yet to grant the state a waiver to do so.
“This case explicitly states that the Clean Air Act permits regulating greenhouse gases ... and the court has now clearly said that carbon dioxide is a pollutant,” Brown told The Associated Press. “That paves the way for California’s waiver.”
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also called on the EPA to grant the waiver.
“We remain hopeful that the EPA will soon determine, as California has, that vehicle greenhouse gases must be reduced,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement.
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com with Pete Williams and Brian Mooar of NBC News.