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Court agrees to narrow case over global warming

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear another case over federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, but the narrow question being considered is unlikely to block the Obama administration's effort to curb global warming pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Justices refused to reconsider a 2007 ruling that found greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act and must be regulated if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finds them to be a danger to public health and welfare.

The court also declined to examine EPA's 2009 "endangerment" finding and the agency's 2010 rules to require reductions in greenhouse emissions from motor vehicles.

During its new term, the court will consider only a very limited question: Whether EPA's vehicle emissions standards triggered a mandate for stationary industrial sources to obtain permits under other parts of the Clean Air Act.

The case, even if decided in favor of industry groups and state governments that filed the appeals, is unlikely to stop EPA from setting the first-ever greenhouse emissions limits under a different section of the law, experts said.

"It does not signal a substantive attack on EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases from power plants," said Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School.

Scientific evidence continues to mount that human activities -- primarily the burning of fossil fuels such as coal -- are altering the planet's climate in potentially dangerous ways.

Late last month, the world's scientists issued their latest report through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They said that warming of the planet is "unequivocal," and that it is "extremely likely" -- a term that means scientists are at least 95 percent certain -- that human activity has been the dominant cause of this warming.

Limiting climate change and its impacts, the IPCC said, "will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions."

Many West Virginia political leaders from both parties reject the scientific evidence, and continue to oppose efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In May, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed a "friend of the court" brief in support of efforts by Texas and 11 other states -- and echoing the arguments of many industry groups -- who were urging the Supreme Court to throw out its 2007 ruling in a case called Massachusetts vs. EPA.

States and industry groups had argued EPA's conclusions about greenhouse gas dangers were not supported by the evidence, that the agency's motor vehicles rules were flawed and that EPA was not authorized to regulate stationary sources like factories and power plants.

The court, while accepting six different petitions, limited its review to the question of whether EPA "permissibly determined that its regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases."

Still, Morrisey said through his spokeswoman that he was pleased with the court's decision.

"It is a case which we are following closely and will continue to do so," Morrisey said. "I am committed to vigorously opposing the EPA or any federal agency when they exceed their legal authority."

Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, one of the lead industry groups that sought the Supreme Court review, also indicated he was pleased with the justices' decision.

But John <co >Walke, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Supreme Court case would have limited impacts, even if decided in favor of industry.

While an EPA loss on the question would mean permits for greenhouse emissions could not be required under one section of the Clean Air Act, federal officials could still write and enforce emissions standards under a different part of the law, Walke said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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