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    Supreme Court Curbs EPA’s Power To Regulate Emissions And Fight Climate Change

    June 30, 2022 - Forbes



      The Supreme Court has made it more challenging for the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases and fight climate change, as justices ruled Thursday in favor of Republican-led states and coal companies that asked the court to limit how much the EPA can control emissions from power plants.

      Obama Administration Authorizes EPA To Tighten Regulation Of Emissions

      A power station stands on October 1, 2009 in Long Beach, California.

      Getty Images

      Key Facts

      The court ruled 6-3 along ideological lines that the EPA does not have the authority under the Clean Air Act to create caps for greenhouse gas emissions and create “generation shifting” requirements (the method by which power plants can reduce emissions).

      GOP-led states and coal companies had sued the Biden administration to limit how much the EPA can regulate emissions from power plants, even though the administration hasn’t actually come up with a rule for those emissions yet.

      The challengers wanted the Supreme Court to preemptively decide how far the Biden administration can go in terms of regulating the emissions, though the White House argued the court shouldn’t rule against the administration while the issue is still “abstract.”

      The justices ruled that the states could bring the case even though there’s no actual rule yet, given that the Biden administration has said that it won’t enforce the rule the Trump administration imposed for power plants and will replace it with a new policy.

      The EPA’s view of how much authority it has to regulate emissions is overly expansive, the court ruled, and there’s “little reason” to think Congress actually intended to give the agency that much power, rather than lawmakers.

      In their dissent, the court’s liberal justices said the majority erred and that Congress did give the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, with Justice Elena Kagan writing the ruling “deprives EPA of the power needed—and the power granted—to curb the emission of greenhouse gases.”

      What To Watch For

      President Joe Biden has set a goal of the energy sector running entirely on clean energy by 2035, but the court’s ruling means that goal will be substantially harder to achieve.

      Crucial Quote

      “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,’” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s majority opinion. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme ... A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body.”

      Chief Critic

      “Whatever else this Court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change,” Kagan wrote in her dissent, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer. “Yet the Court today prevents congressionally authorized agency action to curb power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions. The Court appoints itself—instead of Congress or the expert agency—the decisionmaker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening.”

      Big Number

      25%. That’s the share of the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 that came from the electricity sector, according to the EPA, making the industry the second-biggest source of such emissions. (The transportation industry made up the largest share of emissions, at 27%.)

      What We Don’t Know

      How far the effects of the ruling will go. While the case and the court’s ruling Thursday was focused on the EPA, critics have warned the court’s ruling could be used to stymie other federal agencies’ abilities to impose regulations and make policies themselves, rather than Congress. “Almost everything about these cases … [is] manufactured in an effort to return to an era free from oversight by the government,” Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote in a brief to the court. In his concurrence Thursday, Justice Neil Gorsuch suggested the court was broadly wary of letting federal agencies impose too many regulations, writing, “When Congress seems slow to solve problems, it may be only natural that those in the Executive Branch might seek to take matters into their own hands. But the Constitution does not authorize agencies to use pen-and-phone regulations as substitutes for laws passed by the people’s representatives.”

      Key Background

      The Supreme Court previously blocked President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan in 2016, which similarly imposed regulations on the energy sector. The Trump administration then came up with a new policy that loosened restrictions on the industry, which the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned last year, paving the way for the Biden administration to impose its own rule. Legal experts had expressed surprise that the 6-3 conservative Supreme Court took up the case even before the Biden administration had announced a plan for regulating the energy sector, which Harvard Law School professor Jody Freeman told CNN was “quite unprecedented.” The lawsuit is part of a broader effort on the right to dismantle the so-called administrative state and limit how much the executive branch can impose policies without Congress, Bloomberg notes, however, which may have made the 6-3 conservative court more amenable to taking up the case. The Supreme Court has recently been repeatedly willing to rule against the executive branch in recent months, arguing the White House exceeded its authority by imposing such policies as the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate for private employers and the federal eviction moratorium.

      Further Reading

      Supreme Court Signals It May Curb EPA’s Power To Help Combat Climate Change (Forbes)

      The Supreme Court is hearing a major case on EPA's authority over planet-warming gases. Here's what's at stake. (CNN)

      In EPA Supreme Court case, the agency’s power to combat climate change hangs in the balance (Washington Post)


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