The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was pushed a step back in its efforts to strengthen carbon reduction laws in America. The US Supreme Court announced on Thursday, June 30th, that it limits EPA’s authority to set standards on greenhouse gas emissions for existing power plants.
The Supreme court stated that only Congress, not the EPA, has the power to create a broad system of cap-and-trade regulations to limit emissions from existing power plants.
The decision allows EPA to make such climate change regulations but Congress would have to clearly say it authorizes this power.
So far, Congress has rejected the EPA’s proposed carbon cap and trade programs that aimed to set a cap on greenhouse gas emissions of existing power plants in the country. Currently, there is no regulation that limits existing power plants from releasing emissions.
Why was the decision taken?
The Court’s decision to undermine EPA’s authority comes as a response to a case against the agency brought in by West Virginia on behalf of 18 other mostly Republican-led states along with some of the country’s largest coal companies. They claim that the sectors they operate in would be forced by the agency to move away from using coal.
They claim such moves would come at severe economic costs for their sectors. Another argument against EPA is that the agency does not have the authority to limit emissions across whole states.
The Court’s decision is considered to be siding with the conservative states and fossil-fuel companies as it agreed the EPA did not have the authority to impose such big measures.
The Court also seems to have taken the lion’s share of climate change policies, appointing itself rather than Congress or the EPA as the decisionmaker.
The Court’s decision is justified by the so-called “major questions doctrine” that states with issues of major national significance, a regulatory agency must have clear statutory authorization from Congress to take certain actions and not rely on its general agency authority. This is the first time when the doctrine was cited to back a ruling.
A response by one of the 19 republican states coming from Attorney General Eric Schmitt for Missouri calls the decision a “big victory… that pushes back on the Biden EPA’s job-killing regulations”.
“A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body,” said Chief Justice John Roberts who expressed the majority opinion in the case.
On the other side of the argument Justice Elena Kagan wrote: “Today, the Court strips the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the power Congress gave it to respond to ‘the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.”
According to Hajin Kim, assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago, the ruling gives “enormous power” to the courts to target other regulations they don’t like.
A spokesperson from the Biden Administration stated its position on the case: “President Biden will not relent in using the authorities that he has under law to protect public health and tackle the climate change crisis… Our lawyers will study the ruling carefully and we will find ways to move forward under federal law.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., also commented on the ruling saying it “adds to a number of dangerously outrageous decisions that have rightly tarnished the public’s confidence in 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 decades, if not centuries… The Republican-appointed majority of the MAGA Court is pushing the country back to a time when [robber] barons and corporate elites have complete power and average citizens have no say,” he added.
EPA’s legal fight to cut emissions
The EPA has been leading a legal fight over its authority since the Obama administration set strict carbon limits for each state in an effort to reduce emissions from power plants. The regulation is called Obama’s Clean Power Plan and urged states to meet limits while also encouraging a shift to cleaner energy alternatives like wind and solar.
The Clean Power Plan was blocked in 2016 by the Supreme Court. Back in 2019, the Trump administration argued that the plan exceeded the EPA’s authority. As a result, currently, there is no EPA standard on emissions limits on existing power plants. However, EPA has managed to enforce greenhouse gas emission regulations for new, modified, and reconstructed power plants.
They set a limit on new natural gas power plants that can emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity produced. New coal power plants are also allowed to emit no more than 1,400 pounds CO2/MWh, which almost certainly requires the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.
According to EPA, the final version of the proposed Clean Power Plan is also beneficial for the environment and the economy as it aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electrical power generation by 32% by 2030, relative to 2005 levels. The plan is focused on reducing emissions from coal-burning power plants, as well as increasing the use of renewable energy, and energy conservation.
It achieves a reduction of pollutants that contribute to smog and soot by 25%. The reduction will lead to net climate and health benefits of an estimated $25 billion to $45 billion per year in 2030. That includes the avoidance of 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks among children and 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths.
The plan is also projected to save the average American family $85 per year in energy bills in 2030. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, it will create hundreds of thousands of jobs. If approved, it is also considered to help persuade other countries that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide to take more ambitious steps towards actual reductions.
The Court’s ruling on limiting the rights of EPA to set more ambitious and concrete emissions regulations and the consistent appeal of its Clean Power Plan is a testimony of Supreme authority supporting the pollution-emitting industry and private interests of companies in the sector.
Such decisions threaten directly the health and well-being of communities across states, exposed to the smog pollution by greenhouse gases emitted from fossil fuel power plants. Once again, short-term losses in the fossil fuels sector and disproved claims of the energy transition being bad for the economy and the jobs market have been used as an excuse to delay an energy transition that brings unprecedented economic, public, and environmental benefits.