Supreme Court limits EPA’s powers to fight climate change

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The Supreme Court on Thursday severely curtailed the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants, a blow to the Biden administration’s plans to combat climate change.

The ruling enraged President Biden and environmentalists, who said it posed daunting obstacles for the United States to meet its climate goals, including the president’s goal Power the US grid with clean energy by 2035. “Another devastating decision designed to push our country back,” Biden said.

But Republican-led states, which questioned the EPA’s asserted broad authority, said it was dutiful scrutiny of the Clean Air Act and fair acknowledgment that Congress hadn’t given the agency such sweeping powers.

The vote was 6 to 3, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. writing for the majority of the court. And it reinforced an emerging view among his conservatives that too much power resides in executive bodies acting without clear authority from Congress.

“Limiting carbon emissions to levels that will force a nationwide transition away from using coal for power generation may be a sensible ‘fix to the crisis of the day,'” Roberts wrote, citing a precedent. “But it is not plausible that Congress would have given the EPA the authority to enact such a regulatory regime itself.”

The June 30 decision severely limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. (Video: Libby Casey/Washington Post)

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Similarly, the court reined in the Centers for Disease Control for imposing a moratorium on evictions during the pandemic and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from sweeping vaccination or testing requirements. Roberts was joined in the EPA’s decision by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Gorsuch wrote separately to elaborate: “When Congress seems slow to solve problems, it can only be natural for those in the executive branch to seek to take matters into their own hands. But the constitution does not authorize authorities to use telephony and telephony regulations as a substitute for laws passed by the people’s representatives.”

Judge Elena Kagan, writing for herself and fellow Liberal judges Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, countered that the majority empowered the wrong people to pass judgment on an existential dilemma.

“The court appoints itself — in place of Congress or the agency of experts — as the decision-maker on climate policy,” Kagan wrote. “I can’t think of anything scarier.”

Kagan began her argument with familiar warnings of impending disaster. The world is already in unprecedented territory, with sea levels rising, wildfires intensifying, and other obvious consequences of climate change. Average global temperatures have risen by more than 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the pre-industrial era, mostly due to pollution from burning fossil fuels.

Scientists warn that if warming exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), sea levels could rise, ecosystems collapse and millions more people would be vulnerable to heat, starvation, disaster and disease.

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Biden hoped to lead by example to persuade other countries to cut emissions and help the world keep warming below 1.5 degrees. Now, such diplomacy has become more difficult for Biden, especially as countries scramble for new sources of oil and gas in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The president said he will “continue to use legitimate executive power, including the EPA’s ratified agencies,” work with cities and states to pass legislation, and “continue to press for additional action from Congress to help Americans take full advantage of economic opportunities.” can, cost savings benefits and the security of a clean energy future.”

The decision was based on the so-called “Major Questions” doctrine, which states that Congress must “speak clearly” when approving regulatory action on major issues.

In his ruling, Roberts chided the EPA for finding “newfound power in the vague language” of the Clean Air Act, arguing that a law written half a century ago never allowed the EPA to coerce electric utilities to switch from coal to solar, wind and other renewable forms of generation.

“It is not plausible that Congress would have given the EPA the authority to enact such a regulatory regime on its own,” Roberts wrote. “A decision of such magnitude and magnitude rests with Congress itself or an agency acting under clear delegation from that representative body.”

In her dissent, Kagan said it makes sense that in the Clean Air Act, Congress would let government experts determine the best path to solving problems that might have been unforeseen when the law was written.

“The passing Congress asked the EPA to select the ‘best emissions reduction system’ (taking into account various factors),” Kagan wrote. “In choosing those words, Congress understood – it had to – that the ‘best system’ would change over time. Congress wanted and directed the EPA to keep up. To ensure the continued effectiveness of the statute, the “best system” should evolve as circumstances warranted – in ways that Congress knew it could not then know.”

She pointed out that the Biden administration did not issue its own regulations.

“This new rule will be subject to immediate judicial review before enforcement anyway,” Kagan wrote. “But this court couldn’t wait — even to see what the new rule says — to limit EPA’s efforts to fight climate change.”

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Environmentalists and those who questioned the EPA’s authority have been divided over what comes next.

Richard Lazarus, a Harvard professor of environmental law, said the Supreme Court insisted on a clear testimony from an “effectively dysfunctional” panel.

“The court threatens to upend the nation’s government’s ability to protect public health and well-being just as the United States and all nations face our greatest environmental challenge of all: climate change,” wrote Lazarus in an email.

Others noted that the decision still allows the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. She simply can’t mandate the transition of utilities to renewable energy after Thursday’s ruling.

“There’s something of a silver lining here,” said Jody Freeman, also a professor at Harvard Law School. “It leaves a path for the EPA to continue to set meaningful standards.”

EPA officials, too, say they have other tools to reduce pollution from power plants. “While I am deeply disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision, we are committed to using the full powers of EPA authorities,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

Others predicted Thursday’s ruling could invite future court challenges to other federal rules.

“The ramifications potentially reach far beyond EPA and the Clean Air Act,” said Lisa Heinzerling, a professor of environmental law at Georgetown University. “This is a big statement of how it intends to act going forward.”

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), who led the lawsuit against the EPA, suggested he could bring additional cases based on the “major questions” doctrine. “It could be a very positive tool in the ongoing fight against federal hyperbole,” he told reporters Thursday.

The ruling comes as Biden fights to pass a major climate bill through an evenly divided Senate, boosting Democrats’ efforts to combat rising temperatures.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) accused the court of “pushing the country back to a time when robber barons and corporate elites held full power and the average citizen had no say.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised the ruling.

“The court reversed illegal EPA regulations without clear consent from Congress and affirmed that only representatives of the people in Congress — not unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats — should write our nation’s laws,” McConnell said in a statement.

The United States is the world’s second-largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for a larger portion of historical emissions than any other nation.

West Virginia vs. EPA is the latest battle between the coal industry and Republican-led states against a Democratic government proposing sweeping changes to the way the country’s power sector generates electricity.

In 2016, the Supreme Court stopped the Obama administration’s plan to drastically reduce carbon emissions from power plants. The plan never went into effect, but its emissions reduction targets were met ahead of schedule due to economic conditions that made coal-fired power plants more expensive.

A milder plan was announced by the Trump administration, which said its reading of the law limited EPA’s actions to regulating emissions at a specific location rather than throughout the system, a constraint that has become known as “inside the fence.” .

But on the last day of the Trump administration, a divided panel of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit said it was a deliberate “misreading” of the law.

“The EPA has a wide discretion in fulfilling its mandate,” the decision concluded. “But he must not shirk his responsibilities by imagining new restrictions that the plain language of the law does not clearly demand.”

As a result, the Trump Rules have been scrapped, the Obama Rules have not been reinstated, and the Biden administration has yet to formulate its plan.

Because of this, the administration and environmentalists were stunned when the Supreme Court accepted the case. The Biden administration advised her to simply overturn the DC Circuit Court of Appeals decision and wait with a more intensive review of the EPA’s powers after new rules are proposed.

The case deeply divided the business world. Mining companies and others in the coal sector are asking the court to restrict the EPA, arguing that coal is necessary to keep electricity prices down and the grid reliable. Apple, Tesla and other big tech and retail companies investing in renewable energy, meanwhile, told the court that “sturdy, nationwide rules” are needed to avert a climate catastrophe.

The consolidated cases are known as West Virginia vs. EPA.

Sarah Kaplan and Tyler Pager contributed to this report. Supreme Court limits EPA’s powers to fight climate change

James Brien

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