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Court says EPA authority broad but not limitless

Jun 27, 2014 - By The Dallas Morning News

The U.S. Supreme Court got it right this week when it upheld the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions -- but also warned the agency not to go too far.

In two well-balanced rulings, a split court made clear that the EPA has broad, but not unlimited, authority. And the court warned pointedly that it will take a dim view if the EPA intrudes into the power of Congress or interprets its powers too aggressively.

The court says the EPA can regulate plants from spewing unacceptable levels of pollutants and require those facilities to obtain permits related to greenhouse-gas emissions, but the EPA can't regulate the permitting and operating of plants based solely on greenhouse-gas emissions.

Importantly, the court rulings don't excuse facilities that emit greenhouse gases from the burden of reducing bad emissions, a ruling that would have handcuffed the EPA and reversed its historical role as environmental guardian. Many have long supported the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions and to set certain other environmental standards, authority derived from the Clean Air Act, approved by Congress and signed in 1970 by a Republican president. Now a conservative Supreme Court has added its voice.

We hope Monday's dual rulings deliver a message of moderation to both sides -- persistent EPA critics such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General and GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott, as well to the agency itself, which must guard against overreach. Cleaner energy is critical to this country's future. States such as Texas can't remain competitive if they squander time and energy challenging the EPA's right to set standards.

Also important is that the rulings don't affect President Barack Obama's proposed rules that would require states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal plants -- a major source of greenhouse gases -- up to 30 percent from 2005 levels. Those rules, still in draft form and subject to comments and revisions, would give states and utilities broad options for compliance, such as improving energy efficiency, increasing the use of natural gas, using more renewable energy and making power plant improvements.

The greenhouse-gas threat is real, and Congress has failed to modernize the law to confront this challenge. In that vacuum, the EPA took the lead. The Supreme Court this week upheld that effort.

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