The US Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the government’s key environmental agency cannot issue broad limits on greenhouse gases, sharply curtailing the power of President Joe Biden’s administration to battle climate change.
By a majority of 6-3, the high court found that the Environmental Protection Agency did not have the power to set sweeping caps on emissions from coal-fired power plants, which produce nearly 20% of the electricity consumed in the United States.
The decision sets back Biden’s hopes of using the EPA to bring down emissions to meet global climate goals, set in 2015 under the Paris Agreement on climate change.
It was a significant victory for the coal mining and coal power industry, which was targeted that same year for tough limits by the administration of then-president Barack Obama in an effort to slash carbon pollution.
It also marked a victory for conservatives fighting government regulation of industry, with the court’s majority including three right-wing justices named by former president Donald Trump, who had sought to weaken the EPA.
Conservatives cheered the decision, while the Biden administration blasted it for undermining the fight against global warming.
“This is another devastating decision from the Court that aims to take our country backwards,” the White House said in a statement.
In the case pitting West Virginia and other coal-mining states against the government, the court said that while EPA had the power to regulate individual plants, Congress had not given it such expansive powers to set limits for all electricity generating units.
The majority justices said they recognised that putting caps on carbon dioxide emissions to transition away from coal-generated electricity “may be a sensible solution” to global warming.
But they said the case involved a “major question” of US governance and jurisprudence and that the EPA would have to be specifically delegated such powers by the legislature.
“A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body,” they said.
The three-member liberal minority of the court castigated the majority for overruling powers they said EPA did in fact have.
“Today, the court strips the Environmental Protection Agency of the power Congress gave it to respond to ‘the most pressing environmental challenge of our time,’” they said in a dissent written by Justice Elena Kagan.
“The stakes here are high,” Kagan wrote. “Whatever else this court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change.”
Conservatives and Republicans applauded the decision.
“The Court has undone illegal regulations issued by the EPA without any clear congressional authorisation and confirmed that only the people’s representatives in Congress — not unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats — may write our nation’s laws,” wrote Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who represents Kentucky, a state with a significant coal mining industry.
Republican Representative Yvette Herrell called it a “huge win” for the American people.
“The EPA was created to control toxic pollutants, not CO2. The insane mission creep of regulating normal atmospheric gasses threatened the livelihood and prosperity of countless Americans,” she said in a tweet.
But Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said the decision “will cause more needless deaths” from pollution and “exacerbate the climate crisis.”
Dan Lashof, director of the US arm of the World Resources Institute, said the ruling backed an effort by coal companies and Republican-led states “to cripple the EPA’s ability to address climate change.”
The ruling “makes it much harder for the agency to achieve its core mission to protect human health and the environment,” he said in a statement.
Yesterday’s decision capped a term for the court in which the new conservative majority flexed its muscles in ways that will have profound effects on American society.
Two similar 6-3 decisions last week shook the country. One expanded the rights of gun owners to wear their guns wherever they go, with few limitations.
The EPA ruling, too, could have profound impacts.
Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote separately that the decision was a statement that no government agency can make policies with far-reaching effect without express empowerment by Congress. “When an agency claims the power to regulate vast swaths of American life, it not only risks intruding on Congress’s power, it also risks intruding on powers reserved to the States,” Gorsuch wrote.
“The Court has taken a real step to check not only the EPA but all administrative agencies,” said conservative law expert Ilya Shapiro.
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