In a blow to the fight against climate change, the Supreme Court on Thursday limited how the nation’s main anti-air pollution law can be used to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
By a 6-3 vote, with conservatives in the majority, the court said that the Clean Air Act does not give the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that contribute to global warming.
The court’s ruling could complicate the Biden administration’s plans to combat climate change. Its proposal to regulate power plant emissions is expected by the end of the year. The decision also could have a broader effect on other agencies' regulatory efforts beyond climate change and air pollution.
“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,’” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion for the court. But he wrote that the Clean Air Act doesn't give the EPA the authority to do so and that Congress must speak clearly on this subject.
"A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body,” he wrote.
In a dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the decision strips the EPA of the power Congress gave it to respond to “the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.”
Kagan said the stakes in the case are high. She said, "The Court appoints itself — instead of Congress or the expert agency — the decisionmaker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening.”
President Joe Biden aims to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade and to have an emissions-free power sector by 2035. Power plants account for roughly 30% of carbon dioxide output.
The White House called the Court's decision "devastating" and one which "aims to take our country backwards."
"While the Court’s decision risks damaging our ability to keep our air clean and combat climate change, President Biden will not relent in using the authorities that he has under law to protect public health and tackle the climate change crisis," the White House said in a statement, in which it also urged Congress to act "to accelerate America’s path to a clean, healthy, secure energy future."
The justices heard arguments in the case on the same day that a United Nations panel’s report warned that the effects of climate change are about to get much worse, likely making the world sicker, hungrier, poorer and more dangerous in the coming years.
The court was considering how much power the EPA has to address climate change by regulating carbon dioxide emissions from electric utilities after 19 mostly Republican-led states and coal companies contended the EPA has only narrow authority to regulate carbon output.
The power plant case has a long and complicated history that begins with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. That plan would have required states to reduce emissions from the generation of electricity, mainly by shifting away from coal-fired plants.
But that plan never took effect. Acting in a lawsuit filed by West Virginia and others, the Supreme Court blocked it in 2016 by a 5-4 vote, with conservatives in the majority.
With the plan on hold, the legal fight over it continued. But after President Donald Trump took office, the EPA repealed the Obama-era plan. The agency argued that its authority to reduce carbon emissions was limited and it devised a new plan that sharply reduced the federal government’s role in the issue.
New York, 21 other mainly Democratic states, the District of Columbia and some of the nation’s largest cities sued over the Trump plan. The federal appeals court in Washington ruled against both the repeal and the new plan, and its decision left nothing in effect while the new administration drafted a new policy.
The Supreme Court took up the case, West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, before the Biden administration issued its own rule. A new policy to regulate carbon productions from power plants is not expected before the end of the year, Elizabeth Prelogar, Biden’s top Supreme Court lawyer, told the justices when the case was argued in February.
But the court did not appear interested in Prelogar’s argument that it should dismiss the case because there is no current EPA plan in place to deal with carbon output from power plants.
The state argued that the EPA's powers were limited under the Clear Air Act passed by Congress in 1970. Its position was that the EPA could require changes only at individual plants.
Environmental groups have worried that the court's decision would preemptively undermine whatever plan Biden’s team develops to address power plant emissions.