WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court panel ruled Tuesday that the Environmental Protection Agency had acted properly when it set the nation’s first limits on greenhouse gases.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit concluded that the EPA’s 2009 finding that greenhouse gases endanger human health and the environment was based on “an ocean of evidence,” saying the agency’s move to limit those emissions from cars and trucks was “neither arbitrary nor capricious.”

The ruling was a defeat for groups that question evidence that gases from burning coal and other fossil fuels trap heat in the atmosphere. The coalition of groups that brought the complaints against the EPA said restricting the emissions would be too expensive.

The court also ruled that there were no grounds to challenge the agency’s approach to regulating only large amounts of greenhouse gases from large sources. The EPA has said that this approach gets most of the emissions and avoids having to regulate every hospital, restaurant or other relatively small source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The challenge was brought by a number of states, including Texas and Virginia, as well as manufacturing, oil and gas, and other industry groups.

The National Association of Manufacturers president and CEO, Jay Timmons, said in a statement on behalf of the industry coalition that EPA regulation of greenhouse gases was “one of the most costly, complex and burdensome regulations facing manufacturers.” He said the association was reviewing the court’s decision and would consider further legal options. “The debate to address climate change should take place in the U.S. Congress and should foster economic growth and job creation, not impose additional burdens on businesses,” he added.

The next steps could play out in Congress, where Republicans have proposed amending the Clean Air Act to prohibit the EPA from making any regulations of greenhouse gases due to climate change.

Environmental groups called the court decision a big victory.

“The decision completely rejects all of the challenges to EPA’s climate protection standards. That shows how hollow and political those challenges were all along,” said David Doniger, senior attorney for the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It won’t help their cause in Congress that a unanimous panel of the D.C. Circuit composed of both conservative and liberal justices rejected each and every attack on EPA’s science-based and common-sense actions.”

The three-judge panel comprised Chief Judge David Sentelle, appointed by President Ronald Reagan; and Judges Judith Rogers and David Tatel, both appointed by President Bill Clinton.

One group that didn’t join the challenge was automakers, which support the EPA’s plans. Major automakers agreed earlier to a single nationwide standard for vehicles.

The vehicle emission limits were the first required reduction of U.S. greenhouse gases. The major complaint in the court case was a permit system that requires new power plants and other large stationary sources of greenhouse gas pollution to reduce their emissions through more efficient use of fuels or other means, taking economic considerations into account.