US Supreme Court limits federal power to curb carbon emissions

Published June 30, 2022
The US Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, US, June 26. — Reuters
The US Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, US, June 26. — Reuters

The US Supreme Court on Thursday imposed limits on the federal government's authority to issue sweeping regulations to reduce carbon emissions from power plants in a ruling that will undermine President Joe Biden's plans to tackle climate change.

The court's 6-3 ruling restricted the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal and gas-fired power plants under the landmark Clean Air Act anti-pollution law. Biden's administration is currently working on new regulations.

The court's six conservatives were in the majority in the decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, with the three liberals dissenting.

The ruling is likely to have implications beyond the EPA as it raises new legal questions about any big decisions made by federal agencies. The Supreme Court's conservative majority has signalled ongoing scepticism toward expansive federal regulatory authority. Conservative legal activists have long advocated reducing agency power in what has been dubbed a "war on the administrative state".

The justices overturned a 2021 decision by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that had struck down Republican former president Donald Trump's Affordable Clean Energy rule. That regulation, which the Biden administration has said it has no intention to retain, would impose limits on a Clean Air Act provision called Section 111 that provides the EPA authority to regulate emissions from existing power plants.

The ruling was based on what is called the "major questions" legal doctrine that requires explicit congressional authorisation for action on issues of broad importance and societal impact. The justices in January embraced that theory when they blocked the Biden administration's vaccine-or-test policy for larger businesses, a key element of its plan to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

The decision will constrain the EPA's ability to issue any regulations on power plants that push for an ambitious national shift in energy policy toward renewable sources. As such, the ruling will hamstring the Biden administration's ability to curb the power sector's emissions — representing about a quarter of US greenhouse gases.

Roberts wrote that while capping carbon emissions at a level that would force a nationwide energy transition might be a sensible policy solution, he said that "it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme."

Writing in dissent, liberal Justice Elena Kagan said the court had chosen to hobble Biden's climate agenda before the administration has even issued its rule

"The limits the majority now puts on EPA's authority fly in the face of the statute Congress wrote," Kagan added. In doing so, the court "deprives EPA of the power needed — and the power granted — to curb the emission of greenhouse gases".

On the broader scope of the ruling, Kagan said the court has a clear goal: "Prevent agencies from doing important work, even though that is what Congress directed."

Republican-led states

The case was centred around Trump's Affordable Clean Energy rule intended to impose limits on a Clean Air Act provision called Section 111 that provides the EPA authority to regulate emissions from existing power plants.

A group of Republican-led US states led by major coal producer West Virginia asked the justices to limit the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act. Other challengers included coal companies and coal-friendly industry groups. Coal is among the most greenhouse gas-intensive fuels.

Democratic-led states and major power companies including Consolidated Edison Inc, Exelon Corp and PG&E Corp sided with Biden's administration, as did the Edison Electric Institute, an investor-owned utility trade group.

The Biden administration wants the US power sector decarbonised by 2035. The United States, behind only China in greenhouse gas emissions, is a pivotal player in efforts to combat climate change on a global basis.

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, blasted the court's ruling, likening it to last week's "dangerously misguided and abhorrent decisions" on ending recognition of a constitutional right to abortion and expanding gun rights.

Like those two rulings, Schumer said, Thursday's decision "will cause more needless deaths — in this instance because of more pollution that will exacerbate the climate crisis and make our air and water less clean and safe".

Senator Kevin Cramer, a Republican, lauded the decision, saying: "Today's ruling reaffirms Congress never intended the federal government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions for the states."

The United Nations on February 28, the same day as the Supreme Court's oral arguments in the case, released a 3,675-page report urging global action to combat climate change.

The rule proposed by Trump, a supporter of the US coal industry who also questioned climate change science, was meant to supplant Democratic former president Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan mandating major reductions in carbon emissions from the power industry.

The Supreme Court blocked Clean Power Plan implementation in 2016 without ruling on its lawfulness.

The decision was issued on the final day of rulings for the court's current nine-month term.

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