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By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, in a split ruling, has blocked the Obama administration from requiring special permits for some new power plants, but upheld them for others.

In a dense 5-4 decision Monday, the justices said the Environmental Protection Agency had wrongly stretched an anti-pollution provision of the Clean Air Act to cover carbon emissions in new or modified plants.

But the ruling was confined to only one regulatory provision, and it is not likely to directly affect the broader climate-change policy that the administration announced earlier this month. That policy relies on a different part of the law that says states must take steps to reduce harmful air pollutants, which include greenhouse gases.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had the authority to regulate these gases as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

The current case focused on one of two methods the EPA can use to accomplish that — its permitting rules.

Under the Clean Air Act, new facilities that are expected to emit more than a certain amount of harmful pollutants must obtain a permit in advance.

When the EPA added carbon dioxide to the pollutants it regulates, the agency also decided to raise the established limits without congressional approval. That’s because carbon dioxide is so plentiful that a literal interpretation of the Clean Air Act could have extended the new rules to thousands of houses, office buildings and shopping malls.

The agency preferred to focus the rules on large industrial facilities. Although that move exempted most businesses from regulation, it also left EPA open to attack from industry lawyers, who accused it of rewriting the law to support its regulations.

This story has been updated.
AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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