SCOTUS Guts EPA Carbon Regulation

In a heavy but expected blow to the planet and our people, the ultra-conservative U.S. Supreme Court blocked one of the Biden Administration’s central strategies for reigning in carbon pollution. In its West Virginia v EPA decision announced Thursday, they declared the Environmental Protection Agency has no authority to regulate carbon dioxide pollution from power plants by requiring that coal plants be shut down in favor of cleaner electric generation sources.

As with the court’s recent decision to reverse Roe v Wade, the 6-3 conservative majority relied on a radical legal theory which the court has never before adopted and which could have broader impacts on federal environmental law and federal regulation powers generally. In this case, justices declared the Obama Administration’s proposed Clean Power Plan regulations were too major to be done without more express authority from Congress.

However, in applying this “major questions doctrine,” the Supreme Court ignored the fact the Clean Air Act delegates to the EPA the power to determine when emissions create a health hazard. (They also ignored the fact the Clean Power Plan was never adopted and had not injured the states suing the EPA.) In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan notes this doctrine itself has little support in past rulings, and is merely one example of the excuses which “magically appear” whenever the conservative justices want a justification for one of their own predetermined policy goals — such as making environmental regulations weaker. 

The court’s use of the doctrine in this critical case substantially delays the Biden Administration’s strategy for addressing climate change. It is also an ominous sign for the court’s likely rulings on other environmental cases, such as the one coming this fall on the Clean Water Rule.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan expressed disappointment, but vowed to do everything in his authority to hold polluters accountable.

The decision “leaves the EPA in the climate fight but makes it harder to win it. The ruling recognizes the EPA’s authority to limit the carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants, while narrowing the agency’s options for doing so,” said Manish Bapna, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Under the Court’s decision, the EPA can still write standards that require these plants to operate more clearly. The agency can and must set standards to cut carbon pollution from power plants that burn coal or gas.” 

The national League of Conservation Voters calls on Congress to pass the proposed $555 billion package of clean energy and environmental justice investments. We are hearing renewed progress on that front in the U.S. Senate. Tell your senators to pass a strong climate bill now!

We echo LCV’s call. “It’s now more important than ever that Congress passes a strong climate bill to eliminate the burning of fossil fuels and that we elect a pro-environment majority to the North Carolina General Assembly, U.S. House, and U.S. Senate this fall. The people have the power to elect leaders who will legislate their values and protect their future,” said our Executive Director Carrie Clark.

One of those leaders already fighting the good fight is Gov. Roy Cooper, whose Clean Energy and Clean Transportation Plans make our state a climate action leader in the South. “Today we get yet another outrageous opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court,” Gov. Cooper said in response to the ruling. “State action on climate change is more critical than ever and NC will keep building on our law that requires a 70% power sector carbon emission reduction by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050.”

Fulfilling this plan requires not only more like-minded state legislators but also a strong state carbon plan. The state Utilities Commission is in the process of developing the first one right now, as required by the state law Gov. Cooper referenced. That is the topic of the next bulletin item. Gov. Cooper could also encourage the state Environmental Management Commission to add North Carolina to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Urge him to do so here!

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