Revisionist history on greenhouse gas regulation

June 24

Today’s New York Times editorializes on yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in UARG v. EPA.  Unsurprisingly, the NYT is largely supportive of the Court’s decision.  More surprising is the NYT‘s curious account of the history of EPA efforts to regulate greenhouse gases.  The NYT writes:

when the threat of greenhouse gases became clear, the Environmental Protection Agency needed the flexibility to combat it quickly and effectively.

That is what the E.P.A. has tried to do multiple times in the past several years, promulgating rules regulating the emissions of carbon dioxide — by far the most common greenhouse gas — from both automobiles and stationary sources like power plants. Those actions haven’t sat well with industries that will have to pay more in the short term as a result. They have challenged the agency’s authority repeatedly, but the Supreme Court ruled against them in 2007 and 2011. (links in original)

This is a somewhat bizarre account of the relevant history because neither of the Supreme Court decisions referenced in the NYT editorial – Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) nor American Electric Power v. Connecticut (2011) – involved industry challenges to the EPA’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases, and one of the cases was a decisive victory for the industry-supported position.

Let’s review.  Mass v. EPA was the result of an environmentalist and state-led challenge to the EPA’s refusal to regulate greenhouse gases. At the time the EPA’s position was that it lacked the authority to regulate greenhouse gases and that, even if it had such authority, it would still refuse to act. Industry supported the EPA in this case. So while it’s fair to note that industry lost in 2007, this was not a challenge to agency authority spurred by EPA’s regulatory actions.

AEP v. Conn was not an industry challenge to EPA regulation either.  This suit, like Mass v. EPA, began with litigation filed by states and environmentalist groups.  Also like Mass v. EPA, industry was responding to litigation brought by others and took a position in line with that advanced by the Solicitor General.  Unlike Mass v. EPA and UARG, however, AEP was not about the agency’s regulatory authority. Rather, AEP involved an effort to force emission reductions through a common law nuisance action.  When the case reached the Supreme Court, industry’s primary position — that federal common law nuisance suits are displaced by the Clean Air Act — was supported by the federal government and prevailed 8-0.  So in AEP one cannot even say that the Court ruled against the industry position.

Perhaps what the NYT‘s editorialist meant to say is that the Supreme Court had twice previously affirmed the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.  So phrased, the statement would be accurate as Mass v. EPA held that greenhouse gases may be regulated as pollutants under the Clean Air Act and AEP accepted and restated the Mass v. EPA holding as a basis for its conclusion that because greenhouse gases may be regulated as pollutants, federal common law nuisance suits against greenhouse gases emissions were displaced.  Yet this is not what the NYT wrote, and the Court in AEP was not asked to decide whether Mass v. EPA was correctly decided.  The editorial would also have been accurate had it said that industry groups have filed (and lost) various challenges to EPA regulation of greenhouse gases in the lower courts but, again, that is not what the NYT wrote.

It may make for a snappier editorial to portray industry as a three-time loser against EPA assertions of regulatory authority over greenhouse gases, but such a characterization comes at the expense of accuracy.  Perhaps we’ll see a correction.

My prior posts on the UARG decision are here and here.  Thanks to a reader for the heads up.

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.
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