By Alec Zadek '08
The debate over global warming has heated up over the past few months, and on April 2, the Supreme Court finally weighed in. In Massachusetts v. EPA, the Court decided that the Environmental Protection Agency has authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. While the decision signals a potential watershed in the regulation of air pollutants, it has special significance to one member of the faculty.
Nine years ago, Professor Jon Cannon, currently director of UVA’s environmental and land use law program, was general counsel of the EPA under Administrator Carol Browner. In his capacity as general counsel he issued a memorandum stating that the EPA could regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as “air pollutants” under the Act if the agency found they were a danger to human health or the environment.
In 1998, several environmental groups petitioned the EPA to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide from automobiles. In denying the petition, rather than adhere to Cannon’s advice, the Agency took the view that carbon dioxide emissions were not “air pollutants” subject to regulation under the Act. And even if they were, the Agency said, uncertainties about the relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and climate change made regulation at this time unwise. This set into motion the case of Massachusetts v. EPA, which ended this month in a vindication of Cannon’s suggested interpretation.
During an interview with Professor Cannon on April 10, he discussed the decision and the effect it will have on the EPA.
“The decision does not require the EPA to regulate [greenhouse gas emissions],” Cannon said. “The EPA has failed to make a determination of whether there is endangerment under the statute, and now it must.”
“The decision may be more important in a broader political sense than in its effect on EPA,” he continued. “It is unlikely under this administration that the EPA will set a standard. President Bush does not seem so inclined.”
However, Cannon was optimistic about the long-term results of this decision.
“What the opinion does is give additional impetus for Congress to act,” he said. “I think that climate change is better addressed with new legislation, and Congress should take a position on how we go forward. The problem is too big to be handled by the agency on its own under the existing legislation.”
Cannon was also quick to note that the Massachusetts ruling was far from unanimous, reflecting the divided sentiments of the Court and the American people.
“[Global warming is an] area of intense debate, and I think this is healthy. The case was a 5–4 decision, far from a slam dunk.”
Aside from the recent ruling’s impact on the future of the country, Professor Cannon, the former EPA attorney, noted that the decision meant even more to him.
“On a personal level, it felt great,” he said.