Supreme Court delivers devastating blow to US climate action

‘Whatever else this court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change,’ wrote the court’s liberal justices in their dissent of the ruling

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The US Supreme Court has limited the power of America’s top environmental regulator to cut greenhouse gas emissions in a landmark ruling that deals a blow to climate action.

The justices curtailed the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over emissions from coal-fired power plants in a case brought by 19 Republican-leaning states and fossil-fuel interests led by West Virginia.

The decision caps off a near decade-long legal battle that started under the Obama administration and could kneecap president Biden’s ambitious plans to cut domestic emissions in half by 2030.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling in West Virginia v EPA is another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards,” president Biden 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.”

The court’s conservative justices ruled that Congress had not granted the EPA broad authority to regulate the energy sector under the landmark 1970 Clean Air Act.

The case had stemmed from president Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) in 2014, which attempted to use a small section of the Clean Air Act – 111(d) – to bring “generation-shifting” change to the energy industry and move from fossil fuels to renewables.

“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’,” wrote chief justice John Roberts in the majority opinion.

“But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme in Section 111(d). A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body.”

The dissenting opinion came from the court’s three liberal justices, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer.

The decision “deprives EPA of the power needed – and the power granted – to curb the emission of greenhouse gases”, wrote Justice Kagan.

The dissenting opinion concluded: “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 authorised 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.”

The EPA still has general authority to regulate greenhouse gases as sources of pollution, as was decided by an earlier case, Massachusetts v EPA, in 2007.

The ruling will lead to no immediate changes in federal policy, but could affect how the Biden administration shapes its rules on power-plant emissions.

“We are reviewing the Supreme Court’s decision,” an EPA spokesperson said in a statement to The Independent.

“EPA is committed to using the full scope of its existing authorities to protect public health and significantly reduce environmental pollution, which is in alignment with the growing clean energy economy.”

Robert Rhode, a physicist at the environmental non-profit Berkeley Earth, tweeted that the court “didn’t prohibit the EPA from other kinds of greenhouse gas regulations, nor did they attack the Clean Air Act, the EPA or regulatory process at large”.

“This narrow outcome avoids most of what people had feared,” he added.

Jody Freeman, a Harvard Law professor and climate official in the Obama White House, also wrote that the decision’s “silver lining” was leaving intact the EPA’s ability to determine the best system of emissions reduction.

However, she added that chief justice Roberts’ decision still preserved the possibility of going “beyond the fenceline”, referring to regulations that affect an entire industry, as opposed to an individual power plant.

Environmental groups lambasted the court’s decision. “Hard on the heels of snatching away fundamental liberties, the right-wing activist court just curtailed vital climate action,” said the Centre for Biological Diversity’s Jason Rylander, via a press release.

“In the wake of this ruling, EPA must use its remaining authority to the fullest,” he added.

Justice Breyer retired at noon on Thursday and was replaced by justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who makes history as the first female Black justice.

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority, which includes three appointees of former president Donald Trump, has already shifted to the right on issues, favouring less government oversight.

Last week, the conservative majority overturned the landmark case, Roe v Wade, striking down 50 years of constitutional abortion protections.

The 6-3 conservative majority also recently weakened restrictions on gun ownership. On Monday, the court’s majority ruled that a high-school football coach who prayed on-field after games was protected by the constitution, which opponents claimed could lead to “much more coercive prayer” in public schools.

This article has been updated

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