Everyone Declares Victory After Supreme Court's EPA Ruling

Two narratives emerged after this morning's Supreme Court ruling on the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Here's what you need to know.

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Two narratives emerged after this morning's Supreme Court ruling on the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. It was either a victory for environmentalists or a setback for regulation, depending on which side you chose to come down on.

So which one was it? Here's what you need to know.

The Case

Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency (et al)

Basically, this very dense case had to do (in part) with how the EPA can regulate stationary sources of greenhouse gas emissions (like power plants) through permits, even if their emissions don't stay put.

The Decision

In a 5-4 decision, with Justice Antonin Scalia writing the majority opinion, the court ruled that some facilities that emit greenhouse gases can't be required to have permits even as they expand or build new facilities that could cause pollution. In other words, the EPA had overreached its authority under existing statutes and only Congress can extend the law in that way.

However, it was also decided that the EPA won't be prohibited from regulating the emission of greenhouse gases in other ways going forward.

What Does That Mean?

A number of publications led with the first part of the decision, namely that the EPA had been checked by the Supreme Court. Here were some of the headlines:

Wall Street Journal: "Supreme Court Reins In Some of EPA's Greenhouse-Gas Efforts"
Fox News: "Supreme Court limits EPA global warming rules"
Los Angeles Times: "Supreme Court limits EPA authority on power plants"

As Richard Wolf framed it:

The 5-4 ruling, which partially reverses a 2012 federal appeals court decision, represents a moral victory for industry and state government opponents of the federal regulations. They have complained that the rules could cost billions of dollars to implement and threaten thousands of jobs."

Those headlines were all true. However, a second ruling of 7-2 went in favor of the EPA, saying that they do have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases from facilities they are already allowed to oversee. Even Justice Salica admitted in his opinion that "The EPA is getting almost everything it wanted in this case." In reading his opinion from the bench, Scalia added:

It sought to regulate sources it said were responsible for 86 percent of all the greenhouse gases emitted from stationary sources nationwide. Under our holdings, E.P.A. will be able to regulate sources responsible for 83 percent of those emissions.” 

Hence this headline:

New York Times: Justices, With Limits, Let E.P.A. Curb Power-Plant Gases

The ruling seems to have no impact on the somewhat aggressive EPA plan to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030 announced earlier this month.

So there were plenty of reasons why there were conflicting summaries. The case was dense and the justices were split on the different questions at stake.

But in case you were wondering, the battle outside's still raging:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.