Supreme Court Narrows EPA’s Ability to Regulate Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Supreme Court Narrows EPA’s Ability to Regulate Carbon Dioxide Emissions
Chief Justice John Roberts at the Supreme Court Building in Washington on Nov. 30, 2018. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)
Matthew Vadum

The Supreme Court ruled 6–3 on June 30 that the Clean Air Act doesn’t give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) widespread power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions that a popular theory says contribute to global warming.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the court’s majority opinion (pdf) in West Virginia v. EPA, court file 20-1530. Roberts was joined by the court’s other five conservatives. The court’s three liberal justices dissented.

While “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, quoting a 1992 precedent, “it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme in Section 111(d)” of the Clean Air Act.

“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.

West Virginia and 18 other states challenged the authority the Clean Air Act provides the EPA.

In 2016, the Supreme Court overturned the Obama-era Clean Power Plan (CPP), which expanded controls over the industry. Next, the deregulation-minded Trump administration reversed course, easing control on the industry with its Affordable Clean Energy Rule (ACE Rule).

On Jan. 19, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the ACE Rule, restoring some of the EPA’s authority in American Lung Association v. EPA (pdf). The court held that the EPA, under Trump, had misconstrued section 7411(d) of the Clean Air Act.

In the new opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the D.C. Circuit decision and remanded the case “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

In Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent, she criticized the court majority for a decision she said “strips” the EPA of the power Congress gave it to respond to “the most pressing environmental challenge of our time,” citing Massachusetts v. EPA (2007).

“Climate change’s causes and dangers are no longer subject to serious doubt. Modern science is ‘unequivocal that human influence’—in particular, the emission of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide—‘has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.’”

“Whatever else this Court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change. And let’s say the obvious: The stakes here are high. Yet the Court today prevents congressionally authorized agency action to curb power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions. The Court appoints itself—instead of Congress or the expert agency—the decision maker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening.”

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who previously told The Epoch Times that the EPA is trying to transform itself from “an environmental regulator into a central energy planning authority,” praised the Supreme Court.

“For many years, we’ve argued that EPA only had a narrow bit of authority to regulate carbon emissions,” Morrisey, a Republican who brought the appeal, said at a press conference.

“I think that the court today amplified that point. And once again, they also made clear that when you have something this big, something with vast economic and political significance, then that represents an extraordinary question. And that means Congress needs to step in, as opposed to the unelected bureaucrats.

“We know that over the last year and a half, the Biden administration has tried to run roughshod over the American economy with respect to its energy agenda.

“We want to make sure that the Biden agenda is limited by basis of what Congress authorized these agencies [to do],” he said.

“Our founders envisioned” that “Congress and not the unelected bureaucrats” should make decisions “about the major issues of the day.”

“They didn’t want to just have these unelected bureaucrats reach out and try to seize power where it didn’t exist,” Morrisey said.

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) criticized the ruling and the six conservative justices.

“As the devastating impacts of climate change are becoming ever-more present, it is mind boggling and deeply alarming that the Supreme Court today has decided to hamstring the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. This ruling not only restricts the agency’s ability to limit air pollution from the second-largest source of emissions in America, it also undermines the landmark Clean Air Act that gave it such authority,” the senator said.

“Make no mistake, with this devastating ruling in West Virginia v. EPA, the conservative majority of the Court continues to take our country backward and more worrisome, it opens the door to far-reaching implications for how other federal agencies generally create regulations to implement existing legislation moving forward.”