Two Supreme Court Cases Challenge EPA’s Air Pollution Authority

December 19, 2013- The American government’s authority to regulate air pollution nationwide, often against the wishes of Republican-leaning states, could face new curbs when the Supreme Court takes on two high-stakes cases in coming months. The cases focus on the broad-ranging power wielded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Air Act, first enacted in 1970. 

The Clean Air Act was envisioned as a cooperative effort between the federal government and states in which the EPA sets standards but states have to come up with plans to comply. That flexibility has allowed states that favor looser regulations, such as Texas and Kansas, to resist -- with the support of industry groups like the National Association of Manufacturers -- when the agency wants to impose more stringent standards.

In both cases before the conservative-leaning Supreme Court, mainly Republican states and industry groups have challenged different EPA regulations, in the hope of weakening the agency’s authority. The EPA has support from Democratic states, like Massachusetts and New York, and from environmental groups.

It would be both a big deal and somewhat unsurprising if EPA loses both Clean Air Act cases,” said Richard Frank, an environmental law professor at the University of California at Davis School of Law.

The cases do not challenge whether the EPA can regulate pollutants, such as greenhouse gases, but instead how it uses the Clean Air Act to regulate a wide range of them.

The Supreme Court rulings are unlikely to have a direct impact on President Obama's sweeping Climate Action Plan, which was unveiled in June, legal experts say. But decisions against the EPA could pose obstacles to the way it rolls out its rules.

In the first case, argued Dec. 10, the nine justices considered the legality of a rule that regulates air pollution that crosses state lines. The second case, expected to be scheduled for oral argument in February, concerns a challenge to the Obama administration's first wave of regulations targeting heat-trapping greenhouse gases. The court is due to issue rulings in both cases by the end of June.

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