Day One of Landmark Clean Air Cases: A Report from the Courtroom

Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. heard oral arguments in two of EPA’s critical climate protections: EPA’s finding that six greenhouse gases endanger the human health and welfare of current and future generations; and EPA’s greenhouse gas emission standards for cars and light trucks. 

I had the chance to sit in the courtroom and listen to the historic arguments. Here’s a look at some of the highlights.

The courtroom doors opened at 8:00 am. Arguments began a little after 9:00 in front of a packed courtroom. They lasted almost three hours, during which time Chief Judge Sentelle and Circuit Judges Tatel and Rogers focused closely on the legal underpinnings of EPA’s actions.

The questioning often returned to the importance of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Massachusetts v. EPA. In that decision, the High Court determined that greenhouse gases are “air pollutants” under America’s clean air laws, and directed EPA to determine whether they endanger human health and welfare on the basis of science. 

Against this backdrop, today’s Petitioners forwarded non-scientific reasons that they claimed would permit EPA to avoid finding that greenhouse gases are harmful to human health. That line of reasoning prompted Chief Judge Sentelle to note that:

Sometimes in reading Petitioners’ briefs, I got the feeling that Massachusetts hadn’t been decided.

Among these non-scientific factors: Petitioners urged that EPA must consider humans’ ability to adapt to a changing climate in determining whether greenhouse gases endanger human health.  

In a hypothetical, Judge Tatel probed the flawed implications of that argument – he asked whether Petitioners’ position meant that EPA could determine that a cancer-causing pollutant did not pose a danger to public health on the grounds that society may, at some future point, develop a cure for cancer.     

The court then turned to the second case for the day – the challenge to the clean car standards. Petitioners urged that EPA should have declined to adopt these standards, or delayed adoption indefinitely, on account of the alleged implications such standards would have for large sources of climate pollution.  

The judges’ questions again turned to the plain terms of the Clean Air Act, which directs that EPA “shall” issue emissions standards for new motor vehicles once the agency makes an endangerment determination. The judges questioned Petitioners about why they thought it possible to evade such a clear statutory command. 

U.S. auto makers intervened in this second case in support of EPA’s rules. The car companies noted during today’s arguments that the legal challenges are peculiar for three reasons:

  • No Petitioners are actually regulated by the emission standards
  • The industry that is directly regulated – the automakers – supports the clean car standard
  • No Petitioner has any quarrel with the actual level of the standards.    

All in all, it was a fascinating day for anyone interested in protecting human health and the environment from climate pollution, or for anyone interested in learning more about the rule of law.

We should have more groundbreaking moments tomorrow, when the court hears two more cases involving EPA’s requirements that new, large, industrial emitters deploy the best available cost-effective strategies to reduce harmful climate pollution.

I’m planning to be back in court tomorrow, and I’ll post another wrap-up of the day’s arguments.  

After that, we’ll all have to wait for the court to rule – probably sometime this summer.

In the meantime, learn more about the EPA's endangerment findings and the attacks on EPA's climate change protections on our website, or from my earlier blog.

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