Supreme Court Limits EPA's Ability to Regulate Carbon Emissions

The case centered on what powers had been granted to the agency by Congress through the Clean Air Act


The Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to limit the production of existing, coal-burning power plants in an effort to reduce carbon emissions according to a ruling from the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court was asked to evaluate if weakening limits on power plants’ carbon emissions enacted by the agency under President Donald Trump constituted a violation of the 2015 Clean Air Act.

The court found that the agency lacked the statutory authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and that Congress did not give the agency the authority to regulate states’ emissions. The 6-3 ruling in West Virginia v. the Environmental Protection Agency was released on June 30. 

In 2017, the EPA ended limitations placed on “emissions of a state’s entire electricity portfolio that could be met through other approaches, including switching from coal to solar and wind power or reducing demand for electricity at peak hours through pricing shifts,” per Yahoo News. The Trump administration argued the regulations were beyond the power granted to the agency.

“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 the opinion for the majority. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme… 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 Neil Gorsuch, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, offered a concurring opinion. He noted that the Court ruled that “it [is] ‘unreasonable to assume’ that Congress gave an agency unprecedented power[s]’ in the ‘absence of a clear [legislative] mandate’” in 1980 as part of Industrial Union Department v. American Petroleum Institute.

“Given that precedent counsels skepticism toward EPA’s claim that Section 111 [of the Clean Air Act] empowers it to devise carbon emissions caps based on a generation shifting approach, the Government must point to ‘clear congressional authorization’ to regulate in that manner,” Gorsuch wrote. “Just because a cap-and-trade ‘system’ can be used to reduce emissions does not mean that it is the kind of ‘system of emission reduction’ referred to in Section 111.”

Joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, Justice Elena Kagan dissented. 

“Climate change’s causes and dangers are no longer subject to serious doubt,” stated Kagan. “Congress charged EPA with addressing those potentially catastrophic harms, including through regulation of fossil fuel-fired power plants. Section 111 of the Clean Air Act directs EPA to regulate stationary sources of any substance that ‘causes, or contributes significantly to, air pollution’ and that ‘may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.’”

“The majority breezes past that congressional choice on the ground that today’s opinion does not resolve whether EPA can regulate in some non-technological ways; instead, the opinion says only that the Clean Power Plan goes too far,” the justice added.

“The Court today prevents congressionally authorized agency action to curb power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions,” Kagan wrote. “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 ruling will impact President Joe Biden’s efforts to enact environmental policies, specifically those that would push for green energy as a replacement for coal.

Coal mining is a major industry in several states, including West Virginia, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Kentucky.

Coal production accounts for 40% of the world’s electricity and 13% of the world’s coal is mined in America, according to Mining Technology.

New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the Court’s decision “catastrophic.”

A filibuster carveout is not enough,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter. “We need to reform or do away with the whole thing, for the sake of the planet.”

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice expressed his gratitude for the Supreme Court and its decision.

“This ruling in favor of WV will stop unelected bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. from being able to unilaterally decarbonize our economy just because they feel like it,” the governor said in a statement on June 30. “Agencies shouldn’t get to make unilateral decisions affecting all of our lives without Congress’s vote.”

West Virginia is one of the few states in the nation where all agency regulations must be approved by a vote of the state legislature before they take effect. I’m glad that the federal government will now be following the West Virginia model,” Justice added.

More than 20 states and coal companies have sued the Biden administration to prevent new climate change policy from going into effect. According to Fox News, the Department of Justice has said federal plans to regulate greenhouse gases would not be implemented before 2023.

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