Summary of Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency
Citation: 549 U.S. 497 (2007)
Relevant Facts: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with, inter alia, setting emissions standards for “any air pollutant" from motor vehicles under the Clean Air Act (CAA). In 2003, the EPA determined that it lacked authority under the CAA to regulate carbon dioxide and other gases collectively referred to as greenhouse gases. Massachusetts, along wither several other states, municipalities, and organizations brought suit seeking to force the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. The Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the EPA, with one judge preferring to dismiss the case on standing grounds and two judges reaching that determination on the merits. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve three issues.
Issues: Do the petitions, certain States and other parties, have standing to challenge the decision of the EPA? Is carbon dioxide an “air pollutant" within the meaning of the CAA subject to regulation by the EPA? If carbon dioxide is an “air pollutant" within the scope of the CAA, whether and under what circumstances the EPA may decline to regulate emissions?
Holding: Yes, the States as parties do have standing to challenge the determination of the EPA. Congress, through the CAA, has ordered the EPA to protect Massachusetts and other states from the harms of air pollution, placing the State in a special position to challenge determinations that may result in imminent harm. Yes, carbon dioxide is an air pollutant within the meaning of the CAA subject to EPA regulation. No, the EPA may not decline to regulate carbon dioxide other than for reasons presented in the CAA itself, including the threat to policy prerogatives asserted by the EPA.
Reasoning: Justice Stevens, writing for the Court, first determined that Massachusetts and other states had standing to challenge the decision of the EPA. If anything, the Court explained, the states had a particularly strong interest in the controversy here both in protecting their own lands and the health of their citizens in an area of law reserved for federal action. The States, having ceded some of their sovereignty in joining the Union, also accepted the promise of federal action in areas reserved for Congressional action. Furthermore, Justice Stevens explained that the states satisfied the standards for jurisdiction articulated by Congress for challenging an EPA determination. Next, the Court quickly determined that carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas was well within the standards for air pollutants in the CAA; standards that the Court admitted were broad. Justice Stevens dismissed the EPA’s contention that subsequent Congressional actions attempting to regulate greenhouse gases indicated Congressional judgment that such gases were not already covered by the CAA. Even when, as here, Congress may not have envisioned the ramifications of a purposely broad definitional standard (to wit, they may not have sought to regulate carbon dioxide), the plain statutory language affords the EPA authority to do just that. Finally, the Court determined that the EPA did not have the discretion to refuse regulation under the circumstances here. Rather, the statutory text relating to “judgments" by the EPA related back to other provisions that allowed limited authority for the EPA to refuse to regulate gases classified as pollutants that were determined to not cause harm. When, as here, the EPA makes a finding of endangerment, there is no discretion to refuse regulation. While the Court did not evaluate all of the policy reasons suggested by the EPA for refusing regulation, Justice Stevens explained that no such policy reason justified departure from statutory commands.
Dissent: Chief Justice Roberts dissented, joined by Justices Alito, Thomas, and Scalia, and took issue with each conclusion reached by the majority. First, he contended that the standing analysis was misplaced, serving to undermine standing requirements. Next, he argued that the Court’s analysis of the substantive cases was misplaced, assuming both that the speculative harms suggested were more concrete and that the alleged injuries were capable of resolution. Chief Justice Roberts also questioned the causal connection between the regulations suggested and perceived harms that could follow failure to regulate. In conclusion, the Chief Justice opined that the majority had assumed for itself the role of arbiter of policy disputes, a role not afforded the Court in the Constitution.
Justice Scalia filed a separate dissent, joined but Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito and Thomas. He, too, argued that the parties lacked standing, and thus the inquiry should end without reaching the merits. Discussing the merits only in response to the conclusions of the majority, Justice Scalia argued the EPA administrator may defer judgment when- as here- the underlying science is not settled or no determination may be reached. He supported his argument by pointing to studies relied on by the EPA, and suggested that the Court should defer to administrative determinations made by those in a better position to evaluate the merits of the underlying issues.
Conclusion: The States, having standing, may force the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases under the terms of the CAA. The EPA does not have discretion in refusing to regulate a particular pollutant determined to cause harm within the standards specified by the CAA.