Supreme Court limits EPA’s authority to regulate power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions

Washington — The Supreme Court on Thursday limited the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, delivering a significant blow to the Biden administration’s efforts to fight climate change.

The court divided 6-3 along ideological lines in finding that Congress, through the Clean Air Act, did not grant the EPA the authority to adopt on its own a regulatory scheme to cap carbon dioxide emissions from power plants to combat global warming. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, while the court’s three-member liberal bloc dissented.

The decision is a victory for a group of Republican-led states and coal companies in their yearslong bid to curtail the EPA’s power to issue regulations intended to curb carbon emissions.

“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day,'” Roberts wrote. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme in Section 111(d). A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body.”

Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, criticized the court’s majority for imposing limits on the EPA that “fly in the face” of the statute written by Congress and accused the majority of substituting “its own ideas about policymaking for Congress’s.”

“Whatever else this court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change. And let’s say the obvious: The stakes here are high,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in dissent. “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.”

The case stems from the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, finalized in 2015, which implemented a directive from then-President Barack Obama to use an ancillary provision of the Clear Air Act to address climate change by imposing mandates for existing coal and natural gas power plants to reduce emissions.

More than half of the states and other parties challenged the Clean Power Plan in federal court, and the Supreme Court in 2016 halted enforcement of the proposal in a 5-4 vote. While proceedings continued, there was a change in presidential administrations, and the EPA under then-President Donald Trump repealed the Obama-era standards after determining it “significantly exceeded” its authority under federal environmental law. The agency also rolled out new guidelines for coal-fired power plants.

The repeal of the Clean Power Plan and new guidelines were then challenged by a group of 22 states, environmental groups and other stakeholders, though 19 states, largely led by Republicans, and coal companies intervened in support of the Trump administration’s actions.

In July 2021, the D.C. Circuit struck down the Trump administration’s repeal of the Clean Power Plan and subsequent replacement plan. The states then appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing the lower court’s decision gives the EPA broad power over carbon emissions and to unilaterally remake significant sectors of the U.S. economy.

“How we respond to climate change is a pressing issue for our nation, yet some of the paths forward carry serious and disproportionate costs for states and countless other parties,” West Virginia officials told the court in asking the justices to take up the case.

President Biden has pledged to slash greenhouse-gas emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2030, and plans to combat climate change were a cornerstone of his domestic policy agenda, called the Build Back Better plan. But the president’s proposal stalled in the Senate, and it’s unlikely whether the upper chamber will move to implement climate provisions.

Mr. Biden condemned the Supreme Court’s decision, calling it “devastating” and harmful to the nation, but vowed to find ways for his administration to combat climate change, including through EPA action.

“Today’s decision sides with special interests that have waged a long-term campaign to strip away our right to breathe clean air,” he said in a statement. “We cannot and will not ignore the danger to public health and existential threat the climate crisis poses. The science confirms what we all see with our own eyes — the wildfires, droughts, extreme heat, and intense storms are endangering our lives and livelihoods.”

The president continued: “Our fight against climate change must carry forward, and it will.”

Backing the Biden administration in the dispute were a host of large companies, including Apple, Amazon, Google and Tesla, which told the high court in a friend-of-the-court brief that while they are undertaking their own efforts to mitigate climate change, it is “vital” that the EPA “play a lead role by regulating greenhouse gas emissions.”

The Supreme Court’s decision to limit the power of the EPA goes against what climate experts warn needs to be done urgently in order to stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis. Climate and health behavioral scientist Sweta Chakraborty, president of climate solutions group We Don’t Have Time, told CBS News that more strict regulations are what is needed instead. 

“We are allowing for a free-for-all. And it couldn’t be a worse time,” she said. “We are in a climate emergency.” 

It also sets a “dangerous precedent,” she said, in that the decision says “we don’t need governments to regulate industry” and that more federal policies and regulations could be dismantled. 

“Having this type of ruling is actually saying that it’s a free-for-all oil and gas … we can actually unapologetically support the polluting of our communities in the United States,” she said. “And that’s an extremely dangerous path to go down.”

The Supreme Court’s decision will also undoubtedly impact the view of the U.S. on the world stage, Chakraborty said. Biden’s election to office “renewed global hope” for U.S. leadership on the climate issue, she said, but that could change based on policy. 

“The promises that the Biden administration and Biden himself have made have not yet come into fruition. And this SCOTUS judgment is one more example of us actually going backwards,” she said. “What faith are we actually giving to the rest of the world that the United States is actually doing its part?” 

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