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Supreme Court Curbs EPA’s Power to Limit Climate-Warming Emissions

Experts say it will be difficult or impossible for Biden to meet his climate goals as a global crisis intensifies.

Just south of Charleston, West Virginia, a coal barge travels up the Kanawha River, passing the Dupont chemical plant. West Virginia joined other states and the coal industry in challenging the EPA's authority over air pollution from power plants.

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In a long-awaited ruling on Thursday that some experts warn could endanger a host of environmental and public health protections, the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority declared that federal environmental regulators cannot take the dramatic action necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and protect the public from climate disasters without new legislation from a fiercely divided Congress.

The 6-3 ruling by the court’s conservative bloc is a massive, but not unexpected, setback for Democrats and President Biden, who have committed to cutting the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

“I think this ruling makes it much more difficult if not impossible for Biden to meet those climate goals,” said Anthony Moffa, an associate professor of law at the University of Maine, in an interview.

The case that resulted in Thursday’s decision, West Virginia v. EPA, pitted the Biden administration and environmentalists against coal companies and Republican attorneys general from 20 states, many of them major producers of fossil fuels and pollution. West Virginia, the leading plaintiff in the case, has long been home to coal mines and coal-burning power plants.

The years-long fight began in 2015, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) moved to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants after President Obama signed the Paris climate agreement. Red state attorneys general and coal companies quickly filed suit, and in 2016 the Supreme Court put the Obama EPA’s Clean Power Plan on hold while challenges wound through the courts. The Trump administration repealed the Obama-era plan — the rules never went into effect — before issuing much weaker rules that were also overturned.

In its ruling announced today, the Supreme Court declared that the EPA does not have authority to implement such rules, which were designed to incentivize and push the power sector toward cleaner fuels and renewable energy to meet climate goals over time. The plan aimed to shutter or update aging, dirty power plants and move the grid away from fossil fuels, namely coal, which is a major contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

As the case made its way through the courts, the global environmental crisis intensified. Scientists increasingly linked violent storms, massive and deadly wildfires, power outages, heat waves, and other disasters to a warped climate. The latest United Nations climate report declares that it’s too late to avoid many of the disastrous effects of climate change — in fact, some of them are already here — but we must make drastic reductions in fossil fuel pollution and transform our way of life to thwart the worst impacts.

Under pressure from environmental groups, the Biden administration is eager to draft fresh rules that would move the energy grid away from coal and towards renewables so the nation can reach its climate goals, and regulators were waiting on today’s decision to act. Experts say the ruling not only threatens future efforts to stop climate change at the federal level, it also sets a dangerous precedent that invites legal challenges to a litany of federal environmental and public health protections.

At issue is the “major decisions” doctrine, a legal theory pushed conservatives on the court and a network of right-wing think tanks, industry groups, Federalist Society members on the judiciary and Republican attorneys general who challenged the Clean Power Plan and the EPA’s authority over air pollution from power plants. According to this legal thinking, “major decisions” around national politics and the economy — such as transforming the energy grid to thwart impending climate catastrophe — should be made by Congress, not government agencies.

Environmentalists and the Biden and Obama administrations have consistently argued that the Clean Air Act grants the EPA enough authority over air pollution from power plants to issue substantial regulations protecting the public from the health impacts of climate change. Congress has failed for years to pass climate legislation, as Chief Justice John Roberts noted in writing the Supreme Court’s opinion in the majority, effectively punting the issue back to lawmakers.

However, Moffa said the ruling does not clearly define what is “not” a major political and economic decision for the country, opening the door for polluters to file more legal challenges to longstanding environmental and public health protections.

“This is huge,” said Paasha Mahdavi, director of the Energy Governance and Political Economy Lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in an interview. “In a way, a case like this lays the groundwork for what some have called ‘the dismantling of the regulatory state.’”

Mahdavi added that the ruling could have been more extreme, possibly endangering long-standing air pollution rules that protect the public from potentially deadly pollutants besides carbon dioxide, had the court looked beyond the now-defunct Clean Power Plan. Moffa said the Biden EPA likely expected such a ruling from a Supreme Court with a solid conservative majority. However, that doesn’t make it easier for the administration to respond to, in practice.

“The real problem is we’re already behind the eight ball and have to restart,” Moffa said. “Even if the next thing the EPA does is upheld by the court, it could take years to get that finished, and we don’t have years.”

The Biden administration also argued the plaintiffs lacked standing because the Clean Power Plan never went into effect, and today’s regulators have yet to introduce new rules. In a victory for the plaintiffs, the conservatives on the court declined to take this judicial off-ramp in order to settle political questions over EPA authority and climate policy.

“At the very least, the Supreme Court had the discretion to decline to review this rule, which has never been implemented and is clearly outdated,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, in a statement.

A number of power utilities have sided with the Biden administration and the EPA after investing in new technology and fuel sources in anticipation of federal action on carbon emissions. Some business groups also condemned the ruling. For example, the Great Lakes Business Network warned in a statement that the court’s move to obstruct the EPA’s authority over power plant pollution will threaten the region’s “freshwater future.”

After the ruling, environmentalists and climate activists quickly called on Congress to act. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said the ruling is not the end of climate action, and called on activists to continue to pressure officials to cut ties with fossil fuels at every level of government.

“Congress must tackle poisoning climate emissions at their source by curtailing new fossil fuel development before it starts,” Hauter said in a statement. “This includes halting oil and gas exports, which drive demand for expanded drilling and fracking, while raising fuel and energy costs for consumers here at home.”

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