The Supreme Court on Thursday issued a ruling which limits the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, dealing the White House a major blow in its fight to combat climate change.
In a 6-3 vote along the court's ideological lines, the conservative justices adopted a narrow interpretation of the Clean Air Act, stating that it does not give the EPA broad authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from plants that contribute to global warming.
“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 court's majority opinion.
The question in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency was whether or not the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the authority to delegate broad regulatory power to the EPA related to greenhouse gas emissions, and hinged on a highly technical provision of the Clean Air Act.
Roberts wrote that the court determined that the EPA did not have the authority to do that and Congress must address the issue more clearly.
“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.
President Joe Biden called the ruling "another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards."
"While this decision risks damaging our nation’s ability to keep our air clean and combat climate change, I will not relent in using my lawful authorities to protect public health and tackle the climate crisis," the president said. "I have directed my legal team to work with the Department of Justice and affected agencies to review this decision carefully and find ways that we can, under federal law, continue protecting Americans from harmful pollution, including pollution that causes climate change."
The president extolled the virtues of the Clean Air Act, which was passed by a bipartisan majority in Congress in 1970, saying that it slashed "air pollution by 78 percent even as our economy quadrupled in size."
"Yet today’s decision sides with special interests that have waged a long-term campaign to strip away our right to breathe clean air," Biden said. "We cannot and will not ignore the danger to public health and existential threat the climate crisis poses. The science confirms what we all see with our own eyes – the wildfires, droughts, extreme heat, and intense storms are endangering our lives and livelihoods."
The president pledged that he will take executive action "to keep our air clean, protect public health, and tackle the climate crisis" adding that his administration will work with states and cities to pass clean energy legislation, and he will urge Congress to do the same on a federal level.
"Together, we will tackle environmental injustice, create good-paying jobs, and lower costs for families building the clean energy economy," Biden said. "Our fight against climate change must carry forward, and it will."
In a blistering dissent Justice Elena Kagan, joined by fellow liberal Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, wrote that the court stripped the EPA of "the power Congress gave it to respond to 'the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.'"
"In short, when it comes to delegations, there are good reasons for Congress (within extremely broad limits) to get to call the shots," Kagan wrote. "Congress knows about how government works in ways courts don’t. More specifically, Congress knows what mix of legislative and administrative action conduces to good policy. Courts should be modest. Today, the Court is not."
"Evaluating systems of emission reduction is what EPA does," she continued. "Nothing in the rest of the Clean Air Act, or any other statute, suggests that Congress did not mean for the delegation it wrote to go as far as the text says. In rewriting that text, the Court substitutes its own ideas about delegations for Congress’s. And that means the Court substitutes its own ideas about policymaking for Congress’s. The Court will not allow the Clean Air Act to work as Congress instructed. The Court, rather than Congress, will decide how much regulation is too much."
"The subject matter of the regulation here makes the Court’s intervention all the more troubling," Kagan added. "Whatever else this Court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change."
Kagan accused the court of appointing itself the "decisionmaker on climate policy," adding: "I cannot think of many thing more frightening.
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.
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.
Climate activists and advocates expressed alarm about the high court's ruling, including Democratic members of Congress who called for the immediate passage of climate change legislation.
"Our planet is on fire, and this extremist Supreme Court has destroyed the federal government’s ability to fight back," Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren wrote on Twitter. "This radical Supreme Court is increasingly facing a legitimacy crisis, and we can't let them have the last word."
"The Supreme Court just gutted the EPA's ability to keep our air clean," wrote Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley. "The MAGA majority on the court sided with corporate polluters over the health of the public and the planet. Congress must right this wrong by passing climate legislation NOW."
"The consequences of this decision will ripple across the entire federal government, from the regulation of food and drugs to our nation’s health care system, all of which will put American lives at risk," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
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 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.
Adding to the unusual nature of the high court’s involvement, the reductions sought in the Obama plan by 2030 already have been achieved through the market-driven closure of hundreds of coal plants.
Power plant operators serving 40 million people called on the court to preserve the companies’ flexibility to reduce emissions while maintaining reliable service. Prominent businesses that include Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Tesla also backed the administration.
Nineteen mostly Republican-led states and coal companies led the fight at the Supreme Court against broad EPA authority to regulate carbon output.