‘Devastating’ blow to climate policy as US Supreme Court shackles Biden’s power to limit emissions

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday restricted the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, reversing President Joe Biden’s ambitious climate agenda .

Writing for the 6-3 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said Congress never gave the EPA clear and sweeping power to “substantially restructure the U.S. energy market” by controlling carbon emissions. carbon.

Capping emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition from using coal to generate electricity “can be a sensible solution to the current crisis”, he said, referring to the climate change.

Even so, he asserted that an EPA decision “of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting under clear delegation from that representative body.”

Dissenting, Judge Elena Kagan wrote that the nation’s highest court was interpreting section 111 too narrowly. Clean Air Act 1970 which directs the EPA to regulate stationary sources of any substance that “causes or contributes significantly to air pollution” and that “can reasonably be expected to endanger the health or public welfare”.

“The Court names itself — instead of Congress or the expert agency — the climate policy maker,” she wrote. “I can’t think of many scarier things.”

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Biden, in a statement, called the decision “another devastating move that seeks to set our country back.”

The question is whether the EPA under former President Barack Obama had the power to impose a “clean energy plan” in 2015 on all 50 states requiring them to switch from coal to more electricity-generating sources. clean.

A year later, the Court prevented the entry into force of the plan without ruling on its legal validity. In 2019, Donald Trump’s administration replaced it with a rule that allowed older generators to remain in service.

A federal appeals court struck down Trump’s rule in January 2021 shortly after Biden took office. He ordered the EPA to design a replacement for the Clean Power Plan that could come as soon as the end of this year.

“The court’s decision will necessarily narrow the contours of this replacement plan,” wrote Andrew Skroback, senior counsel at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, in a note to clients.

The case clarified the limits of the EPA’s authority and supported the so-called “major issues doctrinea legal approach that requires Congress to provide clear statutory authority to federal agencies before they decide on a matter of major national importance.

Federal courts generally defer to agencies to interpret the statutes granting them powers. Biden has encouraged the adoption of unusually broad interpretations by the executive branch and agencies independent of their authority to address climate change and a range of other issues.

Those challenging the EPA in West Virginia against the Environmental Protection Agency are a coalition of coal producers and Republican-led states.

Today decision limits EPA regulatory actions to plant-by-plant emissions management, effectively suppressing more drastic approaches without some sort of clear congressional authorization.

Using EPA regulators for industry-wide mitigation has been a central aspect of the White House’s efforts to put the United States on a firm path to meet its climate change commitment. 2030 Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels.

The court also ruled that the EPA does not have the authority to impose a cap and trade system on carbon or any other type of emissions, other than nitric oxide and sulfur dioxide.

The electricity sector accounts for about 24% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, behind transportation (27%) and industry (25%), shifting fastest to more energy sources. own over the past seven years.

Despite the decision, utilities will continue to phase out older coal and natural gas generators for cost, customer, environmental, equity and other reasons. Still, the pace of change will be insufficient to achieve another Biden goal: a carbon-free power grid by 2035, analysts say.

It seems unlikely that Congress will now grant the EPA the clear and broad authority expressed by the majority of the Court in its decision to regulate the energy sector. Democrats with narrow majorities in both chambers appear too divided to act, and Republicans have little interest in helping an agency they routinely accuse of regulatory overreach.

Democrats are also running out of time to secure about $300 billion in clean energy tax credits proposed by Congress, which would give Biden’s climate ambitions a huge boost.

Widespread reaction to the decision

The precedent set in today’s ruling has drawn backlash from clean energy lobby groups, legal experts, the political spectrum and Washington think tanks.

“The Court’s limited view of the Clean Air Act prevents the EPA from using what has long been recognized as the simplest, cheapest and best way to reduce pollution in the air sector. electricity: moving from higher-emitting power plants to affordable, reliable clean energy,” said Heather Zichal, CEO of the American Clean Power Association.

Greg Wetstone, CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, said his advocacy group was “deeply concerned” about the decision and its broader repercussions.

When we should be using the most powerful tools in our toolbox to tackle the climate crisis, the Supreme Court is blunting them.

“At a time when we should be using the most powerful tools in our toolbox to tackle the climate crisis, the Supreme Court is blunting our main instruments,” he said.

John Begala, vice president of federal and state policy for the Business Network for Offshore Wind, called the decision “a step backwards.” He said the trajectory was clear. “States, utilities and consumers are demanding more renewable energy to create jobs and fight climate change.”

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank influential in public policy, welcomed the decision.

“Today, the Supreme Court took a major step to restore representative government and require lawmakers, not bureaucrats, to make major policy decisions affecting the lives of Americans. The significance of this decision cannot be overstated,” said executive vice president Derrick Morgan.

Sasha Mackler, who directs the energy program at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank focused on bipartisan policy solutions, said the decision will have the “unfortunate” effect of increasing regulatory uncertainty at a time when greater clarity on a national climate policy is needed. necessary.

“Today’s court decision only increases the importance for Congress to adopt a pragmatic and effective long-term climate strategy,” he said.

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