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Supreme Court battle considers regulation of greenhouse gases

WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court's hottest environmental case of the year pits California against Texas.

It's also Washington state vs. Idaho, scientists vs. car dealers and, it may seem, the world against the White House, as the justices on Wednesday consider a crucial question in the effort to combat global warming.

The question is this: Can the federal government regulate the so-called greenhouse gases many experts blame for rising global temperatures? The Bush administration says no. California, Massachusetts, Washington, 15 other states and their allies insist otherwise. The final answer is now up to the court's nine justices.

"This is a global problem," California Secretary for Environmental Protection Linda Adams said Tuesday, "and I think everyone agrees that a global problem needs a global solution."

The high stakes in Wednesday's hour-long oral arguments will be drawing plenty of courtroom kibitzers. Already, groups ranging from Alaskan tribes to the National Automobile Dealers Association have staked out sides.

The decision could be cast very narrowly next year. Or it could spur officials trying to cut the roughly 500 million tons of carbon dioxide emitted annually by U.S. cars, trucks and other vehicles.

"A favorable ruling would reinforce our authority to move forward on regulations," Adams said.

California wants federal approval for setting strict new emissions standards on cars and light trucks. The state's federal waiver request may be bolstered by the court's eventual ruling in the case formally known as Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency. California is also moving ahead unilaterally in controlling stationary sources of greenhouse gases.

Neither side disputes that the Earth is getting hotter. The Earth's average surface temperature is now warming at the rate of about 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit per century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The 10 warmest years in the past century have all taken place since 1990.

The law and the politics are trickier. So is some of the science.

The Bush administration stresses in legal briefs the "substantial debate and uncertainties" surrounding cause and effect. Prominent climate scientists including David Battisti and John M. Wallace from the University of Washington retort that all reasonable doubt has evaporated.

"Time is of the essence, because delay in greenhouse gas regulation will only accelerate global climate change," Battisti and Wallace argue in legal filings.

In 1999, environmentalists petitioned the EPA to regulate the carbon dioxide emitted from new cars and trucks. Carbon dioxide is one of the gases thought to trap the Earth's heat.

The Bush administration refused. After weighing some 50,000 public comments, the EPA concluded that the Clean Air Act doesn't give it the authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

"The only provisions of the Act that specifically mention carbon dioxide or `global warming' are expressly non-regulatory in nature," the administration argues in its legal brief.

The administration further contends that the term "air pollution" doesn't encompass global climate change. By contrast, the Clinton administration's EPA had twice concluded the Clean Air Act empowered federal officials to regulate greenhouse gases—if they wanted to.

The energy-producing states siding with the Bush administration fear the burdens of new nationwide greenhouse gas controls.

National rules "for carbon dioxide would result in states having to attain an air quality standard but lacking the power to affect many of the emission sources that are contributing to their lack of attainment," Alaska, Idaho, Texas and seven other states argue in their legal brief.

The court could punt, by ruling narrowly that states such as Massachusetts and California lack the legal standing to sue. The Bush administration proposes this option as a first line of attack, arguing that the states can't prove they have suffered harm from the EPA's refusal to regulate.

Alternatively, the court could forthrightly answer whether the EPA can regulate greenhouse gases. Even a "yes" answer, though, wouldn't specify what those regulations must look like.

That would be a fight for another day.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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