The Longview Power Plant, a coal-fired plant, stands on August 21, 2018 in Maidsville, West Virginia. The plant’s single unit generates 700 net megawatts of electricity from run-of-mine coal and natural gas.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images
The Supreme Court on Thursday limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to set standards on climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions for existing power plants.
In its 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court said that Congress, not the EPA has that power.
The court’s ruling on the case affects the federal government’s authority to set standards for planet-warming pollutants like carbon dioxide from existing power plants under the landmark Clean Air Act.
The choice is a significant setback for the Biden administration’s agenda to combat climate change, specifically the goal to zero out carbon emissions from power plants by 2035 and cut in half the country’s emissions by the tip of the last decade.
The case stems from the EPA’s directive in 2015 to coal power plants to either reduce production or subsidize alternate types of energy. That order was never implemented since it was immediately challenged in court.
Fossil fuel-fired power plants are the second-largest source of pollution within the U.S. behind transportation, in keeping with the EPA. The U.S. can also be the second-largest producer of greenhouse gases behind China, making it a key player in global efforts to combat climate change.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the bulk opinion, within the case, often known as West Virginia v. the Environmental Protection Agency, which was joined by the Supreme Court’s other five conservative members.
The choice is the primary time a majority opinion explicitly cited the so-called major questions doctrine to justify a ruling. That controversial doctrine holds that with problems with major national significance, a regulatory agency should have clear statutory authorization from Congress to take certain actions, and never depend on its general agency authority.
Roberts wrote, “There’s little reason to think Congress assigned such decisions” concerning the regulations in query to the EPA, despite the agency’s belief that “Congress implicitly tasked it, and it alone, with balancing the numerous vital considerations of national policy implicated in deciding how Americans will get their energy.”
“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that can force a nationwide transition away from the usage of coal to generate electricity could also be a wise ‘solution to the crisis of the day,’ ” Roberts wrote, “But it surely just isn’t plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt by itself such a regulatory scheme.”
He added: “A choice of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a transparent delegation from that representative body.”
Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissent, which was joined by the court’s two other liberals.
“Today, the Court strips the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the facility Congress gave it to answer ‘probably the most pressing environmental challenge of our time, ” Kagan wrote in that dissent.
“The Court appoints itself — as an alternative of Congress or the expert agency—the decisionmaker on climate policy. I cannot consider many things more frightening,” Kagan wrote.
She also said, “The bulk claims it’s just following precedent, but that just isn’t so. The Court has never even used the term ‘major questions doctrine’ before.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in an announcement said, “Today’s decision adds to numerous dangerously outrageous decisions which have rightly tarnished the general public’s confidence within the Court.”
“First on gun safety, then on abortion, and now on the environment – this MAGA, regressive, extremist Supreme Court is intent on setting America back a long time, if not centuries,” Schumer said. “The Republican-appointed majority of the MAGA Court is pushing the country back to a time when robbers barons and company elites have complete power and average residents don’t have any say.”
Schumer was referring to the court’s rulings last week, certainly one of which undid the nearly half-century-old federal right to abortion, the opposite invalidating a few of Latest York’s restrictions on carry permits for handguns.
The court’s six-justice conservative majority has been skeptical of the federal agency’s authority to set national standards.
The legal fighting over the EPA’s authority began several years ago when the Obama administration set strict carbon limits for every state in an effort to cut back emissions from power plants, and urged states to fulfill limits by shifting to cleaner energy alternatives like wind and solar.
The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan was temporarily blocked in 2016 by the Supreme Court after which repealed in 2019 by the Trump administration, which argued that the plan exceeded the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act. It argued that the act only allowed the agency to set standards on the physical premises of an influence plant — or “contained in the fenceline.”
The Trump administration proposed more lenient standards to manage emissions only from existing coal-fired steam plants, a policy called the Inexpensive Clean Energy Rule. The revision was challenged by states and environmental groups and ultimately struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Since then, there hasn’t been an EPA standard with respect to carbon pollution from existing power plants.
Republican attorneys general led by West Virginia, a significant coal producer, together with coal corporations and industry groups, pursued the case, arguing that the EPA doesn’t have the authority to transition the country to cleaner energy sources and that such authority belongs to Congress.
Lawyers representing the EPA and U.S. utility industry lobby groups pushed back on arguments restricting the agency’s authority, arguing that doing so would prompt lawsuits against power providers.
Under the Biden administration, the EPA has indicated that it’ll not try and resurrect the Clean Power Plan, but somewhat create its own rules to manage power plant emissions.
But Roberts, in the bulk opinion, wrote, “At bottom, the Clean Power Plan essentially adopted a cap-and-trade scheme, or set of state cap-and-trade schemes, for carbon … Congress, nevertheless, 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 cap-and-trade system, which allows the federal government to set a maximum on the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions released across an industry and penalize parties for violations. Parties then buy and sell the rights to exceed that cap, essentially making a market around emissions.