Speed Reads

Canary in the coal mine

The Supreme Court just helped Obama tackle climate change

CC by: Seth Anderson

The Obama administration has had some pretty serious defeats before the Supreme Court recently, but Tuesday wasn't one of those cases. In a 6-2 decision, the justices ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency can use the Clean Air Act to regulate pollution from one state crossing into another. (Justice Samuel Alito recused himself, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are the dissenters.) The decision overturns a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia circuit.

This upholding of the 2011 "good neighbor" rule is not just a win for the White House and EPA but also for states along the Eastern Seaboard who have spent decades breathing the smog and fumes sent over from Appalachia and the upper Midwest, where air quality rules are more lax. It's a loss for the coal industry, since coal-fired plants will have to install expensive equipment to "scrub" emissions of smog-causing pollutants or close down.

But the ruling is more than that — it provides, or hints at, maybe the biggest tool the Obama White House has to fight climate change. "It's a big win for the EPA, and not just because it has to do with this rule," Harvard environmental law expert Jody Freeman tells The New York Times. "It's the fact that it's setting the stage and creating momentum for what's to come." And what's to come is a broader use of the Clean Air Act to, well, clean our air of some heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions.