US Supreme Court pushes EPA to regulate greenhouse

The United States, and Australia, are the big holdouts in the developed world on doing anything about climate change. However, the ground is shifting under the White House, as it has been shifting here in Oz. The latest development is a Supreme Court decision that obliges the EPA to regulate carbon as a pollutant. The 5-4 opinion states that the Clean Air Act required the EPA to do so:

“Under the Act’s clear terms, EPA can avoid promulgating regulations only if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change or if it provides some reasonable explanation as to why it cannot or will not exercise its discretion to determine whether they do,” .

The intensely political nature of the Supreme Court was pretty obvious in this decision, with the four dissenters being the usual hard-right suspects – Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, and Alito. More importantly from a policy perspective, however, is what the decision will actually mean in practice, which seems about as clear as mud right now. While the Cato Institute are libertarians, they’re not entirely idiotic, and their analysis suggests that there may be ample room for the EPA, under direction of the White House, to do little – at least until January 2009. There’s this from the Washington Post’s Supreme Court blog, which suggests that it may result in the EPA regulating CO2 emissions from cars, like they do other pollutants. And then there’s reports that the decision has prompted the EPA to get moving on an application from California to allow that state to regulate greenhouse emissions from vehicles. If I were a betting individual, I’d place a few quid on the possibility that there are people in the EPA not entirely displeased with this result…

More commentary in this story and this story from the ABC’s World Today program.

Posted in environment, Foreign policy, Law, politics, USA
16 comments on “US Supreme Court pushes EPA to regulate greenhouse
  1. steve says:

    Another area where Australia has been holding out and not thinking too clearly is in the planning and building of underground railway systems from a point of view of cutting down pollution, reducing gridlock, and doing something to prepare the population against sustained oil price increases as oil becomes scarcer.

    In Brisbane, the Brisbane City Council,Liberal Lord Mayor ‘Gridlock Campbell’ builds tunnels but only for cars to proceed from one gridlock to become stuck at the next gridlock.

    Personally I can’t see that what is efficient transport in Paris, Berlin, London,Rome or New York is not even seriously contemplated in Australia.

  2. Fiasco da Gama says:

    Steve, the public transport systems in all of the cities you’ve mentioned depend on a few things absent from Sydney’s planning: massive compulsory slum-clearances in the late nineteenth century, huge public spending in the pre-WWI era, and in the case of Berlin, city replanning care of Allied bombing and Soviet artillery.
    I could name a few Sydney suburbs I’d like to have encircled by Marshals Zhukov, Rokossovskiy and Konev, but that’s probably a subject for another post.
    Robert, what exactly do you think would be entailed by ‘regulation’ of carbon as a pollutant—would that be stricter rules for engine manufacturers, for instance, or greater controls on vehicle owners themselves?

  3. FDB says:

    “huge public spending in the pre-WWI era”

    More pertinently, in the pre-automobile era, when people demanded public transport rather than ‘I drive everywhere and I vote’.

  4. steve says:

    Even the bus system up here is stretched past it’s capacity.

  5. observa says:

    This Court decision really removes any pretence that the judiciary are not just another political institution, one step removed from the voters. Ditto for Quangos like the Reserve Bank, EPA and the like. We really want elected pollies to be directly responsible for decisions about GW and even money supply/interest rates, albeit with research input from relevant Departments. There’s too much political lawyering going down with no political liability. Pisses people off(well every time you don’t agree with it) and diminishes respect for the legal process overall. The courts need to know when to defer to the pollies on policy.

  6. Fiasco: I believe that limits for CO2 emissions per kilometer are envisioned, the same way they are for other vehicular emissions. In effect, the EPA would be bringing in some kind of fuel-economy standard for fossil fuel vehicles.

    For what it’s worth, I happen to think this is a dumb idea. Creating obligations for vehicle manufacturers to build more fuel-efficient vehicles creates no obligations for consumers to actually buy them; nor does it encourage them to drive them less.

    Obs, that is an interesting point, though your argument that this makes the US Supreme Court a political body is pretty dubious given that it’s been so forever – consider this decision from the 1930s. However, how much decision making power should be handed to appointed bodies (both in the US and Australia) and how much should be made directly by politicians accountable to the electorate is an interesting and endlessly debatable question. But the RBA seems to have done a pretty reasonable job thus far….

  7. observa says:

    “But the RBA seems to have done a pretty reasonable job thus far….”
    Some would argue that their slack money(and they’re not alone there) has fuelled unsustainable, speculative stock and RE bubbles which leads to the inevitable. Basically the malinvestments argument. Why should an unelected quango be allowed to do this, when the govt should be directly held to account for slack money. When Howard says he can’t guarantee interest rates won’t rise, he’s right, sort of with an independent Reserve.

  8. steve says:

    Obby, what an influential person you must be,the Howard Government is accepting your advice as their latest brilliant policy.

  9. Brian says:

    Good post, Robert.

    Most commentators seem to think the decision is important and far-reaching but are not sure what it’s going to mean.

    Observa, the Supreme Court has to rule on cases brought before it. If there is law they apply it. If the pollies have been slack and there’s no law, they still have to make a decision, but only in terms of the case before them. If the pollies don’t like what the judges have done they can still make law to set things right in the future.

    The only time they get to over-rule the pollies is when they make laws that are unconstitutional and someone contests them.

    If the pollies think certain decisions should be made by a panel of experts not subject to political pressures then they set one up – by statute. Hence the RBA.

  10. steve says:

    Robert, an interesting move on the part of the court and just shows that if the pollies either won’t or can’t take Global Warming seriously then sooner or later it will be forced upon them through other processes anyway.

    I have no doubt that Howard and his government have no interest in the subject and Ross gittins was very critical of the focus being put on inconsequential token things while nothing is being decided on the broader important issues identified by Stern and the Productivity Commission Report.

    Similarly, Howard running around pushing the nuclear Power option makes little sense when he knows that it too is detrimental to the coal industry and that the price increases needed to cut Green House emissions will also make renewables competitive and probably more able to be delivered quicker and more cheaply than nuclear.

    The thing I can’t get my head around is seeing both the US and China have had nuclear power for yonks , why are they then the world’s worst polluters and by huge margins over other countries if it is such ‘a clean green option’. I read somewhere today that car emissions in the US only account for about 15% of emmissions in the US.

    Another interesting thing I noted this week was as soon as the Productivity Report came down the Carbon Tax option was immediately rejected by Howard.

  11. observa says:

    You’re right of course steve that govts can ignore PS advice to their hearts content and be it on their own electoral heads. However, listening to the PS all the time could lead to retaining the staus quo. Certainly Whitlam would have thought so at one time. I’d imagine it’s quite likely to be able go back and read reports from Treasury backing tarriff walls and managed exchange rates too. We may be about to feel the fallacy of believing in neutral, unelected officialdom aka the US Reserve, with their slack money chickens coming home to roost with the sub-prime mortgage market collapse and consequent shock waves. Personally I’d rather govts carry the resposibility and the electoral can for that. They probably only carry the latter now and Reserve Bank officilas never lose their jobs.

  12. observa says:

    Here’s a bit of green economics for you in our currently constituted marketplace. Just bought the missus a new Mitsubishi Colt. Like the Toyota Prius it has a 1.5 litre DOHC variable valve timing engine and the same constant variable transmission types. Both 4 doors with the usual. power mirrors, windows, ABS brakes, but the Prius is a hybrid electric and may have a few more bells and whistles. You can look up new vehicles, their specs and prices on the Redbook car site. Second hand prices too. Anyhow the RRP of the Mitsi(LS Auto) is $18990, while the cheaper Prius is $37,400.(Actually state govt stamp duty will hit the Prius harder) That’s an upfront saving of $18,410 over the life of the 2 cars. The Mitsi has a 5 yr unconditional warranty with free roadside assist and then a 10 year or 160000km power train (engine and trans) warranty for the new buyer only.

    Compare the two cars’ rated fuel economies and we’re about to finish the picture here. Prius the best in the marketplace at 4.4L/100Km and the fuel miser of the Mitsi range at 5.6L/100Km. That’s a difference of 1.2L/100Km. So quickly you can see the savings facing the average punter wanting to buy a car for 10 years , driving an average 16000 km/yr (that Mitsi warranty remember?) The Prius would save 192L of fuel a year over the 10 years meaning an extra 1920L at say a generous current price of $1.30/L means a projected present vale saving of $2496. Now if fuel rises in price that could look better for the Prius, but against that is the extra cost of financing that $18,410 price difference and stamp duty difference. At present values, the wife and I can save $18410 – $2496= $15914 over the 10 year life of the car and what’s more save that up front. A Prius owner could buy a Mitsi Colt and use that saving to put solar cells on their roof, probably negating the carbon footprint of the Mitsi altogether. (Mitsubishi claim it produces 134g/km which is 2.144 tonnes/yr at 16000km) My conclusion? Prius drivers are economically and environmentally, illiterate wankers.

  13. Steve, whether renewables, nuclear or geosequestration (or some combination of both) will ultimately replace dirty coal is a matter for strong debate…which perhaps isn’t worth going over again on this post.

    However, on your specific question about the USA and China with respect to why they’re so polluting despite nuclear power, you have to look at the amount of nuclear power actually deployed. In the USA roughly 20% of electricity, and only 8% of total energy, comes from nuclear power. In China, it’s a much smaller fraction again.

    If you want to see the potential for nuclear power to cut greenhouse emissions I suggest you compare France and Germany, or Sweden and Denmark. Most of France’s electricity is nuclear; only a small part of Germany’s is. Denmark, so beloved of environmentalists for its wind power program, pumps out roughly 66% more CO2 per capita than Sweden.

    There are good arguments against nuclear power; that it can’t cut greenhouse emissions by a large amount isn’t one.

    Observa, the current-gen Prius is a considerably larger and more luxurious car than the Colt. A fairer comparison would be against the Lancer or a Honda Civic. That said, you’re quite right that there are much cheaper ways to reduce one’s carbon emissions than buying a hybrid (or, for that matter, putting solar cells on your roof).

  14. observa says:

    You’d be surprised about the size and luxury comparisons Robert here
    The Mitsi is essentially a square backed hatch, hence the 200mm shorter wheel base and the overall length is largely boot in the Prius. Given the more sluggish engine in the Prius 57KW cf 77Kw for the Colt, the Colt could easily be enlarged to match. In general they’re making small cars higher (Mitsi is 60mm higher than the Prius even) for more upright seating stance, which reduces the length needed for legroom cf lower slumped seating styles of yore. Nevertheless it’s true they are slightly different cars, but not much in specs as you’ll notice. You’re largely paying for that hybrid function with the Prius.

    The purpose of this comparison was largely as a result of seeing a rollform steel products suppliers company Prius complete with trendy new logo parading down Glenelg. Now I know like most companies, their reps and mangers have largely driven Aussie sixes, but here was the new green face obviously. Whilst you might forgive doctors’ wives for conspicuous badge wearing, there’s no forgiving sound business heads for that. Their sales reps could easily drive themselves and their briefcases around in Colts(like security guards in Toyota Echos mostly and now Hyundai Getz) and spend the balance on solar cells on their factory and sales outlets. That makes more green economic sense in the current marketplace. These wankers are playing around being conspicuous greenies.

  15. Obby, you should also be comparing the automatic Colt to the Prius. Small automatics are traditionally dogs to drive, though I can’t comment specifically on the Colt.

  16. observa says:

    I am comparing the automatics here Rob if you check the comparison tables link you’ll find both cars have the new one speed constant variable transmissions (CVTs in the jargon)CVTs are like driving with an electric motor, with no change ups whatsoever and their efficiency beats manuals hands down nowadays, as well as the pull off the line. The Mitsi with 77KW to 59KW for the Prius is nippy and must make the Prius a bit of a slug by comparison. Trust me the little buggers have come a long way from just a few years ago and I’m six foot four and comfortable in them, although I drive a Commode ute for a workhorse.

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