US Supreme Court Limits EPA Authority To Set Climate Standards For Power Plants
The Supreme Court on Thursday sharply cut back the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to reduce the carbon output of existing power plants, a blow to the nation’s chances of averting catastrophic climate change.
The vote was 6 to 3, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. writing for the court’s conservatives.
“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day,’ ” Roberts wrote, referring to a court precedent. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.”
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the dissenters, countered: “The Court appoints itself—instead of Congress or the expert agency—the decisionmaker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening.”
The decision risks putting the United States even further off track from President Biden’s goal of running the U.S. power grid on clean energy by 2035 — and making the entire economy carbon-neutral by 2050.
With higher seas, fiercer wildfires and other consequences of climate change apparent, the world is already in unprecedented territory. Biden hoped to lead by example to convince other countries to cut emissions and help the world keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
Now that diplomacy just got more difficult for Biden, especially as countries scramble for new sources of oil and gas after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The court was considering the powers granted by the Clean Air Act, which was written decades ago, before climate change was widely recognized as a worldwide crisis.
Environmentalists were alarmed by the court’s decision. Said Richard Lazarus, a Harvard environmental law professor: By insisting that an agency “can promulgate an important and significant climate rule only by showing ‘clear congressional authorization’ at a time when the Court knows that Congress is effectively dysfunctional, the Court threatens to upend the national government’s ability to safeguard the public health and welfare at the very moment when the United States, and all nations, are facing our greatest environmental challenge of all: climate change.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised the ruling.
“The Court has undone illegal regulations issued by the EPA without any clear congressional authorization and confirmed that only the people’s representatives in Congress – not unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats – may write our nation’s laws,” McConnell said in a statement.
West Virginia v. EPA is the latest battle pitting the coal industry and Republican-led states against a Democratic administration that proposes sweeping changes to the way the nation’s power sector produces electricity, the nation’s second-largest source of climate-warming pollution.
The Supreme Court in 2016 stopped the Obama administration’s plan to drastically reduce power plants’ carbon output. The plan never went into effect, but its emission-reduction goals were met ahead of schedule because of economic conditions that made coal-fired plants more expensive.
A more lenient plan was promulgated by the Trump administration, which said its reading of the law limited the EPA’s actions to regulating emissions at a specific site instead of across the system, a restriction that has come to be known as “inside the fence.”
But on the last day of the Trump administration, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said that was an intentional “misreading” of the law.
“The EPA has ample discretion in carrying out its mandate,” the decision concluded. “But it may not shirk its responsibility by imagining new limitations that the plain language of the statute does not clearly require.”
As a result, the Trump rules were struck, the Obama rules were not reinstated and the Biden administration has yet to formulate its plan.
For that reason, the administration and environmentalists were stunned when the Supreme Court took the case. The Biden administration advised it to simply vacate the D.C. appeals court decision and wait to make a more intensive review of EPA’s powers after new regulations were proposed.
The case deeply divided the business community. Mining companies and other firms in the coal sector urged the court to rein in the EPA, arguing coal is necessary for keeping electricity prices low and the grid reliable. Apple, Tesla and other major tech and retail firms investing in renewable energy, meanwhile, told the court that “stable, nationwide rules” are needed to avert climate disaster.
The consolidated cases are known as West Virginia v. EPA