The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants, siding with a group of Republican attorneys general and coal companies in a major blow to the executive branch’s power to curb climate change.
The opinion was a victory for the Republican-led states that undertook the challenge, West Virginia and 18 others — including Alaska, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and Ohio – and limits President Joe Biden’s ability to pursue his climate goals.
In the 6-3 decision, the court’s conservatives ruled that Congress only empowered the EPA to narrowly regulate the emissions of individual power plants, not establish sweeping industry-wide caps on emissions from coal and gas power.
A 2015 Obama administration rule — which is no longer in effect — exceeded the agency’s authority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.
The agency used a little known provision of the Clean Air Act, known as Section 111, to “discover” the power to broadly regulate coal- and gas-fired power plants, Roberts wrote.
“The Agency’s discovery allowed it to adopt a regulatory program that Congress had conspicuously and repeatedly declined to enact itself,” he said.
Kagan, liberals dissent
In a dissent written by Justice Elena Kagan, the court’s three liberals said the decision strips the executive branch agency charged with environmental regulation of its power to respond to the most urgent environmental issue the world faces. Executive branch agencies can use broad authorizing language to address significant issues, the liberals said.
The majority’s decision rested on the sole claim that the EPA requiring a shift from coal and gas power to renewable sources of energy was too large a policy change to be authorized by general language in the law, Kagan wrote.
“But that is wrong,” she wrote. “A key reason Congress makes broad delegations like Section 111 is so an agency can respond, appropriately and commensurately, to new and big problems.”
Congress delegates the power to expert agencies to address issues as they arise, which is what Congress did in the broad provision of the Clean Air Act the EPA used to establish the Clean Power Plan, she said.
“The majority today overrides that legislative choice,” the dissent reads. “In so doing, it deprives EPA of the power needed — and the power granted — to curb the emission of greenhouse gases.”
In North Carolina, Duke Energy operates six coal-fired power plants. The utility has converted another half dozen to natural gas or added that fuel source to existing coal-fired facilities.
Duke’s proposed decarbonization plan would gradually reduce the use of coal, but also ramps up natural gas, a major source of another greenhouse gas, methane. (The state Utilities Commission will hold a public hearing about the proposed plan July 11.)
While greenhouse gases declined by 16% in North Carolina from 2005 to 2018, carbon dioxide composed 82% of those emissions. The primary source of CO2 during that time was coal-fired power plants, according to the state’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory.
In response to the Supreme Court’s announcement, Frank Rambo, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center and leader of the organization’s Clean Energy and Air Program, issued a statement:
By hobbling the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling today has gravely hamstrung the United States’ progress to taking swift and necessary action to address climate change. We have only a brief window of opportunity to cut emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants, one of the country’s largest sources of greenhouse gases, yet today’s decision torpedoes the EPA’s authority to meaningfully do so.
Of all regions of the country, the South has the most to lose from unchecked climate change, and the most to gain from an economy that relies on clean energy. The Court’s ruling in favor of coal companies in a case about an environmental safeguard that no longer exists—indeed, one that never took effect—dismisses legal precedent, and ignores the climate crisis that is already hurting families and communities in the South.
Our environment is only as clean as the regulations that protect it. Today’s decision is devastating for the South and for the country, and should heighten the urgency for localities, states, and for us all to do what we can to take action and seek climate solutions.”
Landmark court term for conservatives
The decision, issued on the last day of the court’s term, capped a landmark term for its new conservative majority that issued major rulings revoking a constitutional right to abortion, limiting states’ power to regulate guns and restricting federal COVID-19 regulations.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer blasted the EPA ruling as part of an “extremist” run of decisions that have hurt the court’s standing with the public.
“This MAGA, regressive, extremist Supreme Court is intent on setting America back decades, if not centuries,” Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in a written statement. “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.”
Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, who was as instrumental as anyone in establishing the court’s 6-3 conservative advantage, praised the decision for returning policy-making power to Congress.
“The ruling “pushes back against the overbearing administrative state, which Democrats have expanded dramatically in recent years,” McConnell, of Kentucky, said in a statement.
“The Constitution states clearly that the lawmaking process lies with the people and their elected representatives, not with opaque federal agencies. I am glad the Supreme Court affirmed this fact and hope other overeager bureaucrats take notice.”
A years-long fight
The suit goes back to 2015, when West Virginia and others challenged the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a rule that established emission guidelines for states to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
The EPA under President Donald Trump rescinded the rule in 2019 and replaced it with the less stringent Affordable Clean Energy rule. A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., struck that rule down last year, saying the EPA was required to at least consider more aggressive alternatives.
Thursday’s decision hinged on the “major questions doctrine,” a legal theory that Congress must authorize the executive branch to regulate broad issues of major national significance.
Nearly 200 Democratic members of Congress submitted a brief in the case that said the Clean Air Act clearly did give the EPA power to regulate emissions.
Lisa Sorg contributed reporting from North Carolina.