The US Supreme Court ruled on Thursday to limit the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, severely curbing the government's power to address climate change and officially nullifying the Clean Power Plan. 

In his opinion on the West Virginia v. EPA ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the Clean Air Act — the 1970 law that directs the EPA to set and enforce national standards regarding pollutants that "endanger human health" — is “the last place one would expect to find” the agency's ability to regulate coal power in the United States.

The EPA was established to protect water and air quality. It's the agency meant to prevent pollution from harming Americans. Why would that agency have an interest in regulating one of the leading causes of pollution in the United States?

The court's decision represents a decades-long effort by the fossil fuel industry and private business groups to reshape the US regulatory system, and it has been blasted by scientists and climate advocates for its dire environmental implications. 

“The Supreme Court’s illogical decision to hamstring the EPA’s ability to limit carbon pollution from power plants makes it much harder for the agency to achieve its core mission to protect human health and the environment," said Dan Lashof, director of the World Resources Institute's United States division.

"The ruling ignores the interconnected structure of the power sector and imposes unnecessary limits on the pollution reduction options EPA can consider, which will result in higher costs and worse air pollution across the United States.”

May Boeve, executive director of the environmental organization, explained how the decision is dangerous as the climate crisis worsens globally.

“The Supreme Court has sided with the fossil fuel industry, stripping federal agencies of many of their intended powers," she said. "For the EPA, that means its power to protect the environment, our communities, and our economy from a growing climate crisis. According to the Wall Street Journal, inaction on climate could cost the global economy $178 trillion by 2070. By limiting the EPA’s authority to regu­late pollu­tion from the energy sector, which accounts for a quarter of the US emis­sions that are contrib­ut­ing to climate change, the Supreme Court is putting our families, our environment, our health, and our future in danger.”

The implications of this ruling go far beyond the US. A polluted atmosphere doesn't heed borders, and the resulting emissions will endanger life everywhere.

Curbing Emissions

The Clean Power Plan was first rolled out in 2015 under President Barack Obama to accelerate the transition to renewable energy as part of a broader push to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions. Over the next few years, the plan pinballed between being implemented, suspended, altered, and implemented again until it was blocked when the coal industry in West Virginia sued to get rid of it once and for all.  

And the Supreme Court played along. 

If you read the full 32 pages of Roberts' opinion of the court, you’ll find yourself transported to an alternate universe where climate change is not an urgent threat and the bottom line of fossil fuel companies takes priority over the health and well-being of ordinary people.

In this universe, the court considers the costs associated with building wind and solar farms, but does not consider the exponentially higher costs associated with climate change — the health care costs, damage caused by extreme weather, the flooding and displacement of coastal cities. It considers the jobs lost in the fossil fuel industry, but not the jobs gained in the renewables and environmental conservation sectors. And it notes how transforming the energy grid would make it more expensive to heat and power homes, even though research shows that renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels

Justice Elena Kagan wrote a powerful dissent, arguing that the EPA was fully within its bounds to carry out the Clean Power Plan — including the section of the Clean Air Act that Roberts called a "previously little-used backwater," which he claimed it was "highly unlikely" Congress intended to allow the EPA to regulate coal-based power plants.  

“Section 111, most naturally read, authorizes EPA to develop the Clean Power Plan — in other words, to decide that generation shifting is the ‘best system of emission reduction’ for power plants churning out carbon dioxide,” Kagan wrote. “Evaluating systems of emission reduction is what EPA does. And nothing in the rest of the Clean Air Act, or any other statute, suggests that Congress did not mean for the delegation it wrote to go as far as the text says. 

“In rewriting that text, the Court substitutes its own ideas about delegations for Congress’s,” she added. “And that means the Court substitutes its own ideas about policymaking for Congress’s.” 

But the court's majority won out in the end. If the EPA wants to regulate carbon emissions going forward, it has to get express permission from Congress. Otherwise, the EPA’s mandate to protect the environment and ensure clean air is not good enough to gradually halt the burning of fossil fuels. 

But with Congress deadlocked — and with the Biden administration's Build Back Better plan, which includes significant climate action and ambitious investments, stalled indefinitely — it seems unlikely that this will happen. 

A Global Crisis

Thursday's ruling is just the latest example of US institutions failing the global community and environment. Over the past half-century of global diplomacy, the US repeatedly has delayed, obstructed, and undermined climate action.

At the turn of the 21st century, the Kyoto Protocols would have created a global framework for curbing greenhouse gas emissions if it weren’t for US interference. Similar plans were stalled and watered down until the Paris climate agreement was finally enacted in 2015, but the US abruptly left the voluntary framework, jeopardizing its broad uptake. Now, as countries seek to strengthen the Paris agreement and create mechanisms for fair climate financing, the US is once again blocking action.

All the while, the US has been increasing its production of fossil fuels, exporting fossil fuels abroad, and funding a military industry that has an environmental footprint larger than most countries

Preventing the EPA from carrying out its duties will have many repercussions, most notably in higher concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. It could also weaken global solidarity, making it less likely for other countries to transform their energy sectors. 

After all, the US is the world’s leading historical driver of climate breakdown — accounting for roughly 20% of overall greenhouse gas emissions. If it refuses to phase out coal, why should other countries? 

The real-world consequences of these decisions are unmistakable. Global temperatures are nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels, deadly heat waves are blanketing entire continents, extreme storms are battering communities, the polar regions are collapsing, potable water is becoming more scarce, the ocean is turning into an acidic hot zone, animal and plant species are suffering and dying out, and this-once-lush planet is becoming desert.

The worst part is that this catastrophe can be stopped. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that we have the technology, financial resources, and public consensus available right now to spur environmental regeneration and economic transformation. 

The vast majority of people worldwide understand the need to scale down greenhouse gas emissions, putting the global population at odds with an unelected US institution that holds enormous power. 

“Whatever else this Court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change,” Kagan concluded in her dissent. “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.”

The coal industry is on its way out no matter what the Supreme Court does. But even a few more years of industrial furnaces hurling smog into the air could push us beyond an environmental point of no return. 


Defend the Planet

The US Supreme Court's EPA Ruling Will Stifle Global Climate Action

By Joe McCarthy