U.S. Supreme Court limits federal power to curb carbon emissions at power plants

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In a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court said on Thursday that the Environmental Protection Agency has no authority in regulating carbon emissions from existing power plants.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that Congress must have a say in applying such rules: “In certain extraordinary cases, both separation of powers principles and a practical understanding of legislative intent make us ‘reluctant to read into ambiguous statutory text’ the delegation claimed to be lurking there. To convince us otherwise, something more than a merely plausible textual basis for the agency action is necessary. The agency instead must point to ‘clear congressional authorization’ for the power it claims.”

The liberal justices maintained that Congress already had given the EPA that authorization through the Clean Air Act. Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent: “Today, the court strips the EPA of the power Congress gave it to respond to the most pressing environmental challenge of our time. It deprives EPA of the power needed — and the power granted — to curb the emission of greenhouse gases.”

Led by West Virginia, the case was brought by a coalition of Republican-led states and coal companies that contested an earlier federal appeals court decision that said the EPA had the power to issue the kind of regulations they opposed. West Virginia’s lawsuit took issue with the 2015 Obama administration Clean Power Plan, which sought to lower carbon emissions by 32% by regulating existing coal- and natural-gas-fired power plants. The Obama administration had planned to require states to lower carbon dioxide emissions by replacing coal power plants with green energy sources.

During Donald Trump’s presidency, he replaced Obama’s initiative with a plan that essentially removed all regulations. But when President Biden took office, he reversed course and promised to slash greenhouse emissions nationwide dramatically.  Biden called the ruling “another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards.” He said in a statement: “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.”  Biden has ordered the Justice Department and other affected agencies to review the Supreme Court ruling and devise plans to allow federal law to cut back on emissions that cause climate change.

Editorial credit: Heidi Besen / Shutterstock.com

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