Supreme Court Prevents EPA From Limiting Emissions

Supreme Court Prevents EPA From Limiting Emissions

Yesterday, the US Supreme Court announced a decision that will limit the federal government’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions (GhG) economy-wide (by a majority of conservative justices), and may invite future challenges to rules imposed by other agencies beyond the EPA. The case, brought by the state of West Virginia, concerns the Clean Power Plan (CPP), set in motion during the Obama Administration, which set strict carbon emissions targets economy- and industry-wide. Though the plan had been shut down by a federal appeals court and repealed during the Trump era, many state utilities continued to cut their coal use as climate action became more popular and renewables became cheaper. In fact, without even being in effect, the CPP’s reduction targets were met 11 years ahead of schedule.

CNN: Supreme Court deals a blow to climate change fight, June 30, 2022.

DW: How coal made us rich | And why it needs to go, February 19, 2021.

Still, litigants from West Virginia went to the Supreme Court to strike down the CPP -- a plan that never took effect and a plan the Biden Administration wasn't looking to revive in its previous iteration. For these reasons, the Biden Administration argued the case should be dismissed. As Vox’s Ian Millhiser put it, “The Supreme Court is not supposed to hear cases about nothing.”

Still, the Supreme Court sided with the coal industry in a 6-3 ruling. The decision declares that “unelected bureaucrats” at the EPA should not be allowed to place such sweeping regulations on the economy. In Chief Justice Robert’s opinion, he writes: “A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body.” Indeed, as World War Zero reported earlier this year in our coverage of oral arguments in the case, the Justices seemed enamored of the Major Questions Doctrine, which states that significant questions must be decided by Congress.

Sky News: What you need to know about coal, November 4, 2021.

The YEARS Project: How the Coal Industry Lied About Climate Change, December 14, 2020.

Reuters: World could see 1.5C of warming in next five years, May 10, 2022.

Why This Matters

It is not yet clear how much this decision will hobble the EPA at a time when it’s never been more crucial to limit emissions. The Biden Administration will likely implement new protections under new rationales and fight to protect them in the Courts. Indeed, the President's carefully worded statement did not delineate or acknowledge any new limits on executive authority, arguing that he "will not relent in using my lawful authorities to protect public health and tackle the climate crisis."

That said, this decision does shift the burden onto Congress to create laws that address the climate crisis. Some worry the limits placed on agencies by this case could have cascading effects on other environmental policies, like the proposed Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule that would require publicly traded to disclose climate-related risks. However, as authorized by Congress, the SEC’s core mission involves oversight and transparency regarding risk in financial markets, making SEC Chairman Gary Gensler’s rules seemingly unimpeachable on jurisdictional grounds.

CBS: Huge carbon emissions cuts needed, UN climate report finds, April 4, 2022.

MSNBC: Climate Change Is Our Greatest Existential Threat, January 3, 2022.

CNBC: SEC chief Gary Gensler on agency's proposed changes to climate disclosures, March 21, 2022.

SEC: The SEC & Climate Risk Disclosure | Office Hours with Gary Gensler, July 28, 2021.

So Much More Than Climate

Still, this decision doesn’t just affect the climate; it also fundamentally shifts the balance of powers in the federal government back to a dysfunctional legislative branch.

Harvard law professor Richard Lazarus told NPR: "By insisting that Congress must specifically authorize significant rules at a time when the justices know that Congress is effectively dysfunctional, the court threatens to upend the national government's ability to safeguard the public health and welfare.”

Justice Elena Kagan, in her dissent, summarized the gravity of the issue:

Whatever else this court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change. The stakes here are high. 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.

CBS: How The Supreme Court May Threaten Democracy, June 27, 2022.

Vox: The roots of America's democracy problem, November 20, 2018.

Brookings Institution: Brookings Institution
Doug Elmendorf answers | Why Does Congress seem so dysfunctional?
, December 16, 2015.

60 Minutes: Is the US Senate broken?, November 4, 2012.