Monday, September 26, 2022

Supreme Court limits EPA’s power to combat climate change

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The Supreme Court on Thursday sharply cut back the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to reduce the carbon output of existing power plants, a blow to the Biden administration’s plans for combating climate change.

The vote was 6 to 3, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. writing for the court’s conservatives.

“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, referring to a court precedent. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.”

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the dissenters, countered: “The Court appoints itself — instead of Congress or the expert agency — the decisionmaker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening.”

Supreme Court conservatives seem skeptical of EPA’s authority for broad emissions regulation

The decision risks putting the United States even further off track from President Biden’s goal of running the US power grid on clean energy by 2035 — and making the entire economy carbon-neutral by 2050.

With higher seas, fiercer wildfires and other consequences of apparent climate change, the world is already in unprecedented territory. Biden hoped to lead by example to convince other countries to cut emissions and help the world keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

Now such diplomacy has become more difficult for Biden, especially as countries scramble for new sources of oil and gas after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In a statement, White House spokesman Abdullah Hasan called Thursday’s ruling “another devastating decision from the court that aims to take our country backwards.” Biden, he added, “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,” Hasan said. “At the same time, Congress must also act to accelerate America’s path to a clean, healthy, secure energy future.”

The court was considering the powers granted by the Clean Air Act, which was written decades ago, before climate change was widely recognized as a worldwide crisis.

Environmentalists were alarmed by the court’s decision.

Richard Lazarus, a Harvard environmental law professor, said said in a statement that by insisting that an agency “can promulgate an important and significant climate rule only by showing ‘clear congressional authorization’ at a time when the Court knows that Congress is effectively dysfunctional, the Court threatens to upend the national government’s ability to safeguard the public health and welfare at the very moment when the United States, and all nations, are facing our greatest environmental challenge of all: climate change.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised the ruling.

“The Court has undone illegal regulations issued by the EPA without any clear congressional authorization and confirmed that only the people’s representatives in Congress — not unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats — may write our nation’s laws,” McConnell said in a statement.

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The United States is the world’s second-biggest annual emitter of greenhouse gases, and is responsible for a greater portion of historical emissions than any other nation.

West Virginia v. EPA is the latest battle pitting the coal industry and Republican-led states against a Democratic administration that proposes sweeping changes to the way the nation’s power sector produces electricity, the nation’s second-largest source of climate-warming pollution.

The Supreme Court in 2016 stopped the Obama administration’s plan to drastically reduce power plants’ carbon output. The plan never went into effect, but its emission-reduction goals were met ahead of schedule because of economic conditions that made coal-fired plants more expensive.

A more lenient plan was promulgated by the Trump administration, which said its reading of the law limited the EPA’s actions to regulate emissions at a specific site instead of across the system, a restriction that has come to be known as “inside the fence.”

But on the last day of the Trump administration, a divided panel of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit said that was an intentional “misreading” of the law.

“The EPA has ample discretion in carrying out its mandate,” the decision concluded. “But it may not shirk its responsibility by imagining new limitations that the plain language of the statute does not clearly require.”

As a result, the Trump rules were struck, the Obama rules were not reinstated, and the Biden administration has yet to formulate its plan.

For that reason, the administration and environmentalists were stunned when the Supreme Court took the case. The Biden administration advised it to simply vacate the DC appeals court decision and wait to make a more intensive review of the EPA’s powers after new regulations were proposed.

The case deeply divided the business community. Mining companies and other firms in the coal sector urged the court to rein in the EPA, arguing coal is necessary for keeping electricity prices low and the grid reliable. Apple, Tesla and other major tech and retail firms investing in renewable energy, meanwhile, told the court that “stable, nationwide rules” are needed to avert climate disaster.

The consolidated cases are known as West Virginia v. EPA.

Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

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