Supreme Court Limits EPA Emissions Authority


On Thursday (June 30), the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. In a 6-3 vote, the court said that Congress, not the EPA, has the power to create regulations to limit emissions from existing power plants in a bid to transition away from coal to renewable energy sources.

The case, known as West Virginia v. the EPA, stems from a 2015 EPA directive to coal power plants to either reduce production or subsidize alternate forms of energy, but was never implemented due to being immediately challenge in court.

The Clean Power Plan, originating from the Obama administration, was temporarily blocked in 2016 by the Supreme Court, then repealed in 2019 by the Trump administration, arguing that the plan exceeds the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act and that the act only allowed the agency to set standards on the physical premises of a power plant.

The Trump administration then proposed a policy called the Affordable Clean Energy Rule to regulate emissions only from existing coal-fired steam plants. However, that revision was challenged by states and environmental groups before ultimately being struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The majority opinion on the ruling was written by Chief Justice John Roberts. The decision was also reportedly the first time a majority opinion cited the “major questions doctrine” to justify a ruling, which holds that with issues of major national significance, a regulatory agency must have clear statutory authorization from Congress to take certain actions and not rely on its general agency authority.

Roberts wrote, “There is little reason to think Congress assigned such decisions” about the regulations in question to the EPA, despite the agency’s belief that “Congress implicitly tasked it, and it alone, with balancing the many vital considerations of national policy implicated in deciding how Americans will get their energy.”

“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.’” Roberts wrote. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.”

In a dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the decision strips the EPA of the power Congress gave it to respond to “the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.”

Ruling Response

Some are considering the ruling a huge blow against President Joe Biden’s climate crisis plan, which includes cutting the nation’s GHG emissions in half by the end of the decade, as well as achieving a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. According to reports, power plants account for roughly 30% of carbon dioxide output, with the U.S. the second largest producer of GHG in the world.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling in West Virginia vs. EPA is 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,” said Biden in a statement following the ruling.

“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.”

A White House spokesperson on Thursday said the EPA ruling was “another devastating decision from the Court that aims to take our country backwards.”

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who led the legal challenge to EPA authority, said the “EPA can no longer sidestep Congress to exercise broad regulatory power that would radically transform the nation’s energy grid and force states to fundamentally shift their energy portfolios away from coal-fired generation.”

“While I am deeply disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision, we are committed to using the full scope of EPA’s authorities to protect communities and reduce the pollution that is driving climate change. We will move forward to provide certainty and transparency for the energy sector, which will support the industry’s ongoing efforts to grow our clean energy economy,” wrote EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan.

“EPA will move forward with lawfully setting and implementing environmental standards that meet our obligation to protect all people and all communities from environmental harm.”

Biden’s Climate Crisis Plan, Clean Energy

Following the announcement of Joe Biden as the United States’ President-elect, the Biden-Harris transition team released its plan regarding climate change, highlighting the incoming administration’s early priorities. Overall, Biden intended to dedicate $1.7 trillion to overhaul energy, transportation, agriculture, and other sectors.

According to the transition document, the team planned to go beyond just recommitting the nation to the Paris Agreement on climate change, but also aimed to build a more resilient, sustainable economy through the creation of union jobs within these new investments. Biden’s planned investments included:

  • Infrastructure: Create millions of good, union jobs rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure—from roads and bridges to green spaces and water systems to electricity grids and universal broadband—to lay a new foundation for sustainable growth, compete in the global economy, withstand the impacts of climate change, and improve public health, including access to clean air and clean water;
  • Auto Industry: Create 1 million new jobs in the American auto industry, domestic auto supply chains, and auto infrastructure, from parts to materials to electric vehicle charging stations, positioning American auto workers and manufacturers to win the 21st century; and invest in U.S. auto workers to ensure their jobs are good jobs with a choice to join a union;
  • Transit: Provide every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options through flexible federal investments with strong labor protections that create good, union jobs and meet the needs of these cities—ranging from light rail networks to improving existing transit and bus lines to installing infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists;
  • Power Sector: Move ambitiously to generate clean, American-made electricity to achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. This will enable us to meet the existential threat of climate change while creating millions of jobs with a choice to join a union;
  • Buildings: Upgrade 4 million buildings and weatherize 2 million homes over 4 years, creating at least 1 million jobs with a choice to join a union; and also spur the building retrofit and efficient-appliance manufacturing supply chain by funding direct cash rebates and low-cost financing to upgrade and electrify home appliances and install more efficient windows, which will cut residential energy bills;
  • Housing: Spur the construction of 1.5 million sustainable homes and housing units.
  • Innovation: Drive dramatic cost reductions in critical clean energy technologies, including battery storage, negative emissions technologies, the next generation of building materials, renewable hydrogen, and advanced nuclear—and rapidly commercialize them, ensuring that those new technologies are made in America;
  • Agriculture and Conservation: Create jobs in climate-smart agriculture, resilience, and conservation, including 250,000 jobs plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells and reclaiming abandoned coal, hardrock, and uranium mines—providing good work with a choice to join or continue membership in a union in hardhit communities, including rural communities, reducing leakage of toxics, and preventing local environmental damage; and
  • Environmental Justice: Ensure that environmental justice is a key consideration in where, how, and with whom we build—creating good, union, middle-class jobs in communities left behind, righting wrongs in communities that bear the brunt of pollution, and lifting up the best ideas from across our great nation—rural, urban and tribal.

In November, U.S. officials broke ground for the construction of Vineyard Wind 1, the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind farm, in Massachusetts. Work will begin with the building of two transmission cables to connect the offshore wind facility to the mainland.

According to the Department of the Interior release, the Vineyard Wind 1 project will generate 800 megawatts of electricity annually and power over 400,000 homes. Vineyard Wind 1 will contribute to the Biden-Harris administration’s goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030 and Massachusetts’ goal of 5.6 gigawatts within the same timeline.

At the beginning of the year, the U.S. Department of Energy announced the launch of its “Building a Better Grid” Initiative to modernize the country’s national grid as party of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Through the program, the department will work with community and industry stakeholders to identify national transmission needs and work to create facilities that use clean electricity and zero emissions.

The initiative is expected to help reach President Biden’s goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035 and a zero emissions economy by 2050. The program plans to make the U.S. power grid more resilient against the impacts of climate change, increase access to affordability and reliable clean energy and create jobs across industry sectors.

Last month, Biden issued three executive orders to prioritize domestic clean energy manufacturing to aid in the goal of eliminating carbon from the country’s power supply by 2035. According to the White House, the United States is now on track to triple its domestic solar manufacturing capacity by 2024, with the current base capacity of 7.5 gigawatts growing by an additional 15 gigawatts. A total of 22.5 gigawatts will reportedly enable more than 3.3 million homes to switch to clean solar energy each year.

The three actions Biden is taking include:

  • Authorizing use of the Defense Production Act (DPA) to accelerate domestic production of clean energy technologies, including solar panel parts;
  • Putting the full power of federal procurement to work spurring additional domestic solar manufacturing capacity by directing the development of master supply agreements, including “super preference” status; and
  • Creating a 24-month bridge as domestic manufacturing rapidly scales up to ensure the reliable supply of components that U.S. solar deployers need to construct clean energy projects and an electric grid for the 21st century, while reinforcing the integrity of our trade laws and processes. 

Tagged categories: Carbon footprint; Emissions; Environmental Controls; Environmental Controls; Environmental Protection; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); EPA; Government; Greenhouse gas; Laws and litigation; NA; Net Zero Energy ; North America; Power; Power Plants; President Biden; President Obama; President Trump; Program/Project Management; Regulations

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