Supreme Court upholds rules curbing greenhouse gases from power plants

A wind turbine stands in front of a coal-fueled power plant in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, in December 2010. (Martin Meissner / Associated Press)

DAVID G. SAVAGEcontact the reporter

Supreme Court upholds rules aimed at limiting greenhouse gases from power plants

Supreme Court ruling on power plants is not expected to affect administration's broader greenhouse gas rules

The Supreme Court in a split decision Monday upheld most of the Obama administration’s environmental rules designed to limit greenhouse gases from power plants.

The outcome is likely to be welcomed by environmentalists because it confirms the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to restrict greenhouse gases.

The justices handed down two separate rulings in a dispute over permits for new or modified power plants and factories.

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In a 7-2 vote, the justices agreed the Environmental Protection Agency could force major polluters to use new and better technology to limit their emissions of carbon dioxide.

“These are major polluting facilities, such as factories and coal-fired power plants,” said Justice Antonin Scalia, and they are already subject to EPA restrictions. Now, those restrictions can include limits on greenhouse gases, he said.

But in a separate 5-4 vote, the court struck down an EPA regulation that could have extended the required greenhouse gas permits to millions of other facilities. Scalia said EPA had stretched the law to cover new facilities that were not major polluters.

While most the court’s opinion dealt with the rejected permitting rules, the court said EPA had won more than it had lost.

“It bears mentioning that EPA is getting almost everything it wanted in this case,” Scalia said in the courtroom.

EPA officials welcomed the ruling.

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"Today is a good day for all supporters of clean air and public health and those concerned with creating a better environment for future generations," said Liz Purchia, a spokeswoman for the agency. She noted the court had "largely upheld" its rules requiring large polluters to limit their greenhouse gas emissions.

The ruling is not likely to affect the broader climate change policy that the administration announced earlier this month. That policy relies on a different part of the law that says states must take steps to reduce harmful air pollutants, which include greenhouse gases.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had the authority to regulate these gases as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

The current case focused on one of two methods the EPA can use to accomplish that -- its permitting rules.

Under the Clean Air Act, new facilities that are expected to emit more than a certain amount of harmful pollutants must obtain a permit in advance.

When the EPA added carbon dioxide to the pollutants they regulate, the agency also decided to raise the established limits without congressional approval. That's because carbon dioxide is so plentiful that a literal interpretation of the Clean Air Act could have extended the new rules to thousands of houses, office buildings and shopping malls.

The agency preferred to focus the rules on large industrial facilities.

Although that move exempted most businesses from regulation, it also left EPA open to attack from industry lawyers, who accused it of rewriting the law to support its regulations.