Supreme Court limits EPA’s authority to set power plant climate standards

The Longview Power Station, a coal-fired power plant, stands on August 21, 2018 in Maidsville, West Virginia. The plant’s single unit generates 700 megawatts of electricity from coal and natural gas.

Spencer Platt | beautiful pictures

The Supreme Court on Thursday limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to set standards for climate change greenhouse gas emissions for existing power plants.

In its March 6 ruling, the Supreme Court said Congress, not the EPA, had the power to create a broad system of cap and trade regulations to limit carbon emissions from greenhouses. existing machines in an effort to transition from coal to renewables. energy sources.

The court’s ruling in the case affects the federal government’s authority to set standards for pollutants like carbon dioxide from power plants under the landmark Clean Air Act. The decision is a major setback to the Biden administration’s agenda to combat climate change, namely its goal of eliminating carbon emissions from power plants by 2035 and cutting it in half. national emissions by 2100.

The case stems from an EPA directive in 2015 for coal-fired power plants to reduce output or subsidize alternative forms of energy. That order was never executed because it was immediately challenged in court.

According to the EPA, fossil fuel-powered power plants are the second-largest source of pollution in the US after transportation. The United States is also the second-largest producer of greenhouse gases after China, making it a key player in efforts to combat global climate change.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, in the case, known as West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, which was joined by five other conservative members of the Supreme Court.

The decision is the first time that a majority has explicitly cited the so-called big questions doctrine to justify a ruling. That controversial doctrine holds that for matters of great national significance, a governing body must be explicitly authorized by Congress to take certain actions, and not rely on its joint competent authority.

Roberts wrote, “There is little reason to think that Congress has delegated such decisions” about the regulations in question to the EPA, even though the agency believes that “Congress tacitly delegated the mandate, and on its own, with balancing many of the key national policy considerations involved in deciding how Americans will get their energy.”

“Limiting carbon dioxide emissions to a level that would force a nationwide shift away from coal for power generation could be a sensible solution to today’s crisis,” writes Roberts. “But there’s no reason why Congress should give the EPA the power to pass such a regulatory plan on its own.”

Roberts added: “A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress or an agency acting on a clear delegation from that agency.

Judge Elena Kagan wrote a dissent, which featured two other court libertarians. “Today, the Court stripped the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the powers that Congress had given it to deal with ‘the most pressing environmental challenge of our time,'” Kagan wrote in critical dissent. the point.

“The Court appoints itself – rather than Congress or an expert body – to make decisions on climate policy. I cannot think of more frightening things,” Kagan wrote. She also said, “The majority claim it’s just precedent, but that’s not the case. The court has never even used the term ‘principal question doctrine’ before.”

A White House spokesman on Thursday said the EPA’s ruling was “another devastating decision from the Court to take our country back.”

“President Biden will not stop using the authorities he has under the law to protect public health and address the climate change crisis,” the spokesperson said. “Our attorneys will study the ruling carefully and we will find a way to move forward under federal law.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., said in a statement that the ruling “adds to a number of dangerous outrageous decisions that have tarnished public confidence in the Court. “

“First it’s about gun safety, then it’s about abortion, and now it’s about the environment — MAGA, this radical, reclusive Supreme Court intent on taking America decades back decades,” Schumer said. , if not centuries,” Schumer said. “The majority Republican-appointed MAGA court is pushing the country back to a time when bandits and corporate elites had complete power and average citizens had no say.”

Schumer was referring to court rulings last week, one of which rescinded nearly half a century of federal abortion rights, the other invalidated some of New York’s restrictions on pregnancy licenses. by handgun.

The war dates back to the Obama administration

The court’s six-justice conservative majority was skeptical of the federal agency’s authority to set national standards.

The legal battle over the power of the EPA began several years ago when the Obama administration placed strict carbon limit for each state in an effort to reduce emissions from power plants, and urged states to meet the limits by switching to cleaner energy alternatives such as wind and solar.

The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan was temporarily blocked by the Supreme Court in 2016 and then repealed by the Trump administration in 2019, arguing that the plan exceeded EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act. . It argues that the act only allows the agency to set standards for a power plant’s facilities – or “inside the fabric”.

The Trump administration has proposed more lenient standards to only regulate emissions from existing coal-fired steam plants, a policy known as the Affordable Clean Energy Rule. The amendment was opposed by states and environmental groups and was eventually dismissed by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Since then, there have been no EPA standards regarding carbon pollution from existing power plants.

The Republican attorney general led by West Virginia, a major coal producer, along with coal companies and industrial corporations, pursued the lawsuit, arguing that the EPA did not have the authority to move the country to the states. cleaner energy source and that authority rests with Congress. .

Attorneys representing the EPA and U.S. utility industry lobbying groups have rejected arguments that limit the agency’s authority, arguing that doing so would lead to lawsuits against developers power supply.

Under Biden’s administration, the EPA has indicated that it will not attempt to reinstate the Clean Power Plan, but rather create its own rules to regulate power plant emissions.

But Roberts, in the majority opinion, wrote, “The Clean Power Plan essentially adopted a limited and commercial plan, or a set of limited and commercial plans. state, for carbon … However, Congress has consistently rejected proposals to amend the Clean Air Act to create such a program.”

Thursday’s decision could rule out the agency’s ability to impose a trade and cap system that allows the government to set a maximum level of greenhouse gas emissions in an industry. and penalize violators. The parties then buy and sell the right to exceed that limit, essentially creating a market around emissions.

However, the ruling does not affect the EPA’s ability to limit greenhouse gas emissions more broadly.

Jason Rylander, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said that while the ruling is “bad” and “unnecessary,” the EPA still has the potential to limit greenhouse gases at source under Sections 111 of the Clean Air Act. and more broadly through other provisions of the act.

“Following this ruling, the EPA must make the most of its remaining powers,” Rylander said. “The case highlights the need for swift executive action on climate.”

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