Supreme Court restricts EPA authority over power plant emissions

Learn more about what the recent Supreme Court ruling means for the clean energy transition.

By Asiyah Choudry

August 1, 2022

Supreme Court

In June 2022, in a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the Obama-era Clean Power Plan overstepped the regulatory authority of the EPA. Let’s take a closer look at the history of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the broader implications of this ruling in the context of the climate crisis.

A brief history of the epa

President Richard Nixon established the EPA in 1970 in response to growing concerns about environmental degradation and air and water quality. Nixon’s 1970 Clean Air Bill, a regulation requiring the EPA to monitor levels of six common air pollutants, passed unanimously. The agency has played a crucial role in improving the health and well-being of people and the environment. For example, air pollution in the US fell by 77% between 1970 and 2019 as a direct result of EPA oversight.

 

In 2015, the EPA released the Clean Power Plan, which established state-level guidelines for reducing power plant carbon emissions while accelerating clean energy development. In 2019, the Clean Power Plan was repealed and replaced by the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule. The ACE rule promoted improved efficiency of coal-fired generation. However, EPA modeling projected that it would result in a meager COreduction of under 1%. In 2021, the ACE rule was vacated by the D.C. Circuit.

greenhouse gas emissions

Recent Supreme Court Ruling

In West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Power Plan overstepped the EPA’s regulatory authority. More broadly, this means that the EPA cannot widely regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants as it has not been granted this authority by Congress. In the final decision, Justice John Roberts opines that “a decision of such magnitude and consequence…” should fall under congressional authority.

Government agencies, like the EPA, are limited to the regulatory authority bestowed on them by Congress. The Supreme Court can reject agency claims to authority under the Major Questions Doctrine. Under this doctrine, if an agency is regulating issues of great political and economic significance then it should be able to point to congressional authorization to enact these regulations.

 

In a statement released on June 30th, President Biden referred to the ruling as a “...devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards.” Biden further affirms his commitment to push for congressional action, in addition to pursuing collaboration with cities and states on climate issues.

wind farm in the ocean

What does this mean?

Based on the Supreme Court ruling, the EPA cannot drive the decarbonization of the energy sector from an efficient, system-wide level. While the EPA retains the ability to regulate individual power plants, it has become much more challenging for the agency to tackle the issue of greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector. This is alarming, given that the 2021 EIA Annual Energy Outlook has shown that fossil fuel consumption will continue to grow into 2050.

 

In addition, this ruling sets a precedent that may implicate other federal agencies working to tackle climate issues. If an agency has not been granted authority by Congress to regulate a politically and economically significant climate issue, then it may also be at risk of losing its ability to do so.

This means that it's up to Congress and state regulators to drive the clean energy transition. Congress can pass legislation mandating a transition to cleaner energy. In addition, Congress could expand the regulatory capacity of the EPA, enabling the agency to broadly regulate power sector emissions.

 

Action can also be taken at the state level. Many states are championing renewable energy. California, for example, has targeted 100% clean energy by 2045.

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How you can voice support for reduced emissions

According to the UN’s Sixth Assessment Report on climate change, the window for climate action is narrowing. The US is a top contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, and it is critical that Congress, state legislators, and individuals take action to address this issue.

 

If you’re interested in voicing your support for the clean energy transition, consider contacting your local congressional member. If you don’t know who your representative is or aren’t sure how to get in touch, the United States House of Representatives website can help you find the relevant information.

Another avenue for supporting climate action is through your investments. Impact investing is one investment strategy that enables you to use your funds to create a positive environmental impact.

 

While it’s disheartening to see that the Supreme Court has made climate action more challenging, there are still lots of avenues for action. We hope to see more activity in Congress and at the state level to push clean energy forward!

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