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In our opinion: Supreme Court curtails more ambitious aspects of EPA's greenhouse gas regulations

Published: Tuesday, June 24 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

July 1, 2013 - Smoke rises from the Colstrip Steam Electric Station, a coal burning power plant in in Colstrip, Mont. The Supreme Court on Monday placed limits on the sole Obama administration program already in place to deal with power plant and factory emissions of gases blamed for global warming.

Matt Brown, Associated Press

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Both sides are claiming victory, of sorts, in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Monday concerning the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts at regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The clear winner, however, is the rule of law.

In announcing the decision, Justice Antonin Scalia said the EPA will be able to regulate the sources that provide 83 percent of the emissions believed responsible for global warming. It had sought to regulate 86 percent, but that would have required the agency to rewrite provisions written into law, and the Legislative branch of the federal government, or Congress, is responsible for writing laws, not the executive branch nor its many agencies.

The extra 3 percent would have applied regulations to small emitters of greenhouse gases, such as shopping centers or schools.

Yes, it’s true the court asserted the EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gasses, and particularly those emitted by large power plants, oil refineries and other industrial operations. But a majority of the court remains concerned about federal agencies that exceed their authority by relying on obscure language in long forgotten pieces of legislation.

“The power to require permits for the construction and modification of tens of thousands, and the operation of millions, of small sources nationwide falls comfortably within the class of authorizations that we have been reluctant to read into ambiguous statutory text,” the majority decision said.

“An agency has no power to ‘tailor’ legislation to bureaucratic policy goals by rewriting unambiguous statutory terms.”

This ruling signals to the Obama administration that it may face a bumpy road ahead in regards to other powers it has similarly asserted in order to change laws without congressional approval.

Significantly, this week’s decision does not affect the EPA’s proposed new rules designed to cut carbon emissions nationwide by 30 percent by 2030. Those rules are aimed mainly at coal-burning power plants and would affect plants and jobs in Utah, as well as elsewhere.

However, that is another example in which the Obama administration has found it more convenient to impose administrative rules than to vet ideas through the people’s representatives. In that case, the administration seems to rely on drafting errors in a 1990 law for its authority.

Utah has a keen interest in cases involving EPA rules. On the one hand, local economies can suffer as plants are forced to shut down or to bear enormous costs to comply with new rules. On the other, the state suffers from regular bouts with high concentrations of polluted air that exacerbates health problems and may harm tourism.

Reasonable regulations of harmful emissions are important, but the court was correct in stopping the EPA from rewriting law without the approval from Congress.

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