By Rachel Koning Beals
President Joe Biden’s plan to address climate change hit a major hurdle as the Supreme Court on Thursday ruled to restrict federal reach in controlling emissions at power plants and beyond.
The court, whose conservative majority has already shown reluctance in broadening federal agency scope, considered the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal- and gas-fired power plants under the landmark Clean Air Act. But the impact of the decision, the Biden administration and environmental groups say, is much wider.
In a 6-3 ruling, the court sides with mostly conservative, energy-producing states and fossil-fuel companies in adopting a narrow reading of the Clean Air Act. The decision prevents the EPA from enforcing climate-friendly, industrywide changes, limiting it to actions targeting individual plants.
The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts.
“Climate is literally the tip of the iceberg. The [ruling] attacks the very foundation of modern regulation,” said Steven Cohen, in an opinion piece for the Columbia University Climate School.
“In the face of today’s complex, technological world, conservative state attorneys general and right-wing jurists are demanding a degree of legislative specificity that is impossible for nonexperts to articulate,” he said. “Our elected leaders and judges are not chemists or toxicologists. They tend to be lawyers. When they write environmental laws, they leave important details to the experts in regulatory agencies.”
The SCOTUS ruling comes just months after the United Nations issued another in a series of alarming reports on climate change, the latest suggesting that the most vulnerable nations are already behind in adapting to environmental pressure and intensifying natural disasters. It is mounting distress, the U.N. says, that comes at the hands of burning fossil-fuels /zigman2/quotes/209723049/delayed CL00 -4.59% for power, transportation and more in the most-developed parts of the globe, including the U.S.
Some observers consider the setback a tactical and psychological blow for Biden’s administration. He has set a goal of decarbonizing the U.S. power sector by 2035 . And he wants the U.S. economy as a whole to flip to net-zero emissions by 2050, first halving emissions by the end of this decade.
U.S. emissions targets are largely in line with what’s been set by the rest of the major global economies, save for China, the world’s largest polluter, which says it can hit net-zero emissions by 2060 .
The ruling is also significant because several climate cases, some featuring novel legal arguments, are slated to make their way through the federal court system.
SCOTUS reviewed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit’s 2021 decision striking down Republican former President Donald Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy rule.
That Trump rule loosened regulations linked to climate change when compared to the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. Obama’s effort sought to reduce release of greenhouse gases through improved efficiency measures and the adoption of more natural gas /zigman2/quotes/210189548/delayed NG00 +0.50% and renewable energy instead of coal.
The Supreme Court stayed that plan, preventing it from taking effect, in 2016. Trump’s replacement still sought efficiency improvements but excluded the switch to cleaner fuels.
Two coal companies, as well as a group of states led by West Virginia and North Dakota, challenged the lower-court ruling.