Right-wing media mischaracterized a recent Supreme Court case as evidence of executive overreach on the part of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), even though the challenged agency action was one where the EPA specifically declined to act as aggressively as the law allowed.
On February 24, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, a case that could hinder the EPA's ability to regulate harmful greenhouse gases if polluting industry interests have their way. Right-wing media outlets like Fox News and The Wall Street Journal were quick to portray the case as an overextension of the EPA's regulatory authority. The WSJ editorial board -- whose disdain for clean air is well-documented -- accused the agency in a recent editorial of "crowbarring carbon into what it admits is an unworkable regulatory framework."
More recently, in a February 24 segment on Fox's Special Report with Bret Baier, legal reporter Shannon Bream framed the legal issue as "whether the agency had the right to literally rewrite" the Clean Air Act:
What Bream and the WSJ gloss over is the fact that the Supreme Court actually pushed the EPA to regulate harmful climate change-causing pollutants in its landmark 2007 case, Massachusetts v. EPA. Since that case was decided, however, the agency has acted as ordered by the Court in the context of the plain language of the Clean Air Act and Congress' inability to overcome certain partisan factions and update the law.
Contrary to right-wing media's assertions, in the face of a historic environmental challenge and a historically obstructionist Congress, the EPA is actually trying to regulate less than what the law as written currently requires. In fact, had the EPA not adjusted its regulatory framework, it would have been responsible for "stationary sources" that emit just 100 tons of pollution each year. This amount is so low it could include churches, apartment buildings, and schools, not just major factory polluters. The EPA argues that Congress could not have intended this "absurd result," which is why the agency tailored the threshold to 75,000 tons of pollution per year instead.
There are decades of legal precedent to support the EPA's point of view and its corresponding action -- courts will generally avoid an interpretation of a statute that would lead to "absurd" results or consequences, based on the idea that Congress would not have intended such a result in drafting the legislation. Bream admits as much in her report, stating that the Supreme Court's past decisions do "weigh heavily in favor of deferring to federal agencies when statutory language is ambiguous."
Even Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican who ran the EPA under George W. Bush, argues that the agency has "broad authority" to interpret the Clean Air Act. In this case, the EPA is utilizing that authority to tread more softly than it could:
For more than 30 years and during the administrations of five presidents -- again, both Republicans and Democrats -- the EPA has consistently and correctly interpreted this permitting program to apply to all pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act. Far from "rewriting" the statute or bending the law to fit its climate change agenda, the Obama administration simply interpreted the law in the same way as its predecessors -- this time to cover greenhouse gas emissions. This is a reasonable action consistent with the EPA's mission and the Clean Air Act's text and purpose.