The Supreme Court set the stage for a high-stakes showdown over President Obama's climate change agenda, agreeing Tuesday to hear a series of cases involving the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to mandate greenhouse gas emission controls at utilities, factories and other facilities around the country.
Both sides were claiming a preliminary victory in the high court's decision, with environmentalists contending the justices declined to take up a much broader challenge to the EPA's authority to identify harmful greenhouse gases, while business and energy industry groups said the planned January oral argument gives the agency's critics a first chance to chip away at what they see as an out-of-control EPA agenda full of mandates and regulations that threaten jobs and economic growth.
Legal analysts said the justices' decision on EPA authority under the Clean Air Act to control emissions from factories and other "stationary" facilities likely will have limited impact on the administration's broader global-warming effort.
Highly controversial aspects of that plan — most notably, carbon emission restrictions on new power plants that could cripple the U.S. coal industry — appear destined to move forward, no matter what the high court decides after it hears the case next year.
Not under review in the cases accepted Tuesday will be the EPA's conclusion that carbon emissions endanger public health and the planet. The court also declined to hear cases that would overturn the court's 2007 decision ordering the EPA to consider regulating greenhouse-gas emissions.
Still, the cases are shaping up as the biggest legal test of Mr. Obama's green agenda during this Supreme Court term.
"These regulations will be felt not only by the nation's energy providers and manufacturers, but they also threaten to impose new stringent permitting requirements for millions of stationary sources, which will impact every aspect our economy," said Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers. The association was one member of a broad coalition that brought a variety of petitions before the Supreme Court related to new EPA regulations.
The court rejected three of those, and in the process closed the door to a wider review of the EPA's overall authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
Instead, the justices agreed to hear six cases that focus on one central question: "Whether the EPA permissibly determined that its regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements under the Clean Act for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases."
That question arose following the EPA's landmark automobile fuel efficiency standards, first put forward in 2010 and updated last year.
Those rules, often touted by Mr. Obama and the environmental community as one of the most important actions the administration has taken to fight global warming, call for vehicles to average 34.5 miles per gallon by 2016 and 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
But after releasing those standards, the EPA cited provisions of the Clean Air Act and determined that if it was limiting emissions from cars and trucks, it also must establish new permit requirements for "stationary facilities," which include power plants, factories and other sites.
The question before the court will be whether the EPA instead could and should treat those two categories differently, and whether the agency overstepped when it used the 2010 automobile rule to also crack down on other sources.
A federal appeals court has unanimously upheld the EPA's decision to limit stationary facilities, and the Supreme Court previously has ruled in favor of the agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
With the case focused on just one narrow question, specialists say the administration's larger climate-change agenda is not in jeopardy.
"The core components of the president's climate action plan should therefore remain intact, regardless of how the Supreme Court resolves this case," said Jonas Monast, director of the climate and energy program at Duke University.
Leaders in the environmental community celebrated the fact that the high court refused to hear challenges to EPA's broader power to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
"The court rejected pleas by big polluters and a small group of states to review the EPA's authority to limit greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and other sources when they endanger public health and welfare," said David Doniger, director of policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group and frequent defender of EPA actions.
Republican-led states, such as Virginia, Alaska, Texas and others, pushed the court to take a look at the EPA's actions and authority. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Petroleum Institute, American Chemistry Council, National Association of Home Builders and other organizations also supported a Supreme Court review.
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