US Supreme Court limits federal power to curb carbon emissions

Updated on Jul 01, 2022 06:08 AM IST
US President Joe Biden slammed the verdict as yet another devastating decision aimed to take the country backward.
The three liberal judges on the bench, who dissented -- as they had done on the abortion case -- saw the verdict as a blow in the battle against one of the biggest crisis of the times. (AFP)
The three liberal judges on the bench, who dissented -- as they had done on the abortion case -- saw the verdict as a blow in the battle against one of the biggest crisis of the times. (AFP)
By, Washington

The US Supreme Court on Thursday restricted the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to impose wider regulations to limit carbon emissions from power plants and shift the industry from coal towards other energy sources, a ruling in line with ideology of the Conservative majority of the bench.

In the West Virginia v EPA case, a 6-3 ruling saw all the six conservative judges voting to limit the federal agency’s powers. At stake was the interpretation of a provision of the Clean Air Act, and whether EPA had the authority to impose large scale limits on carbon emissions across the power industry. The majority ruled it did not. US President Joe Biden slammed the verdict as yet another devastating decision aimed to take the country backward.

The court’s decision confirms a wider reset underway in American jurisprudence, nearly a week after the court, first, narrowed the ability of states to impose restrictions on carrying guns in public, and then, overturned Roe v Wade which enshrined access to abortion as a constitutional right, leaving it up to the states to decide.

Chief Justice John Roberts, speaking for the majority, said, “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’. But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.”

The three liberal judges on the bench, who dissented -- as they had done on the abortion case -- saw the verdict as a blow in the battle against one of the biggest crisis of the times.

Under provisions of the Clean Air Act, the administration of former president Barack Obama has first issued the Clean Power Plan with the aim of reducing emissions from power plants by 32% by 2030, relative to 2005 levels. It was based on a plan to shift the nature of electricity generation in the country from coal towards natural gas and renewable energy sources. 27 states, egged on by the coal industry, challenged the plan in court which issued a stay.

Then, the Donald Trump administration went in the other direction, issuing the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which limited EPA’s authority, and was more lenient on carbon emissions. A federal court in Washington DC struck down the rule at the end of Trump’s presidency, and said that the agency had ample discretionary room to carry out its mandate.

West Virginia, other Republican states, and representatives of coal industry challenged this decision in the Supreme Court. Thursday’s court verdict still allows EPA to issue emission limits at power plants, but strikes at its authority to engineer a large scale shift in the nature of those plants towards clear energy sources.

The majority based its verdict on a narrow reading of the Act, concluding that neither the law nor the US Congress gave the EPA such wide-ranging powers. This was located within the framework of the “major questions doctrine” — this refers to the court’s view that an agency, on a matter of national importance, must derive its actions strictly and narrowly from the statutory authorisation.

The court verdict deals a blow to Biden’s plans to battle the climate crisis as a priority. It comes even as Biden’s signature climate legislation failed to pass in the Senate, and the energy crisis induced by the Ukraine war has slowed down, even reversed, energy transition plans.

The verdict still leaves room for the Congress to pass legislation giving EPA wider powers, but in a divided legislature - with Republicans and a segment of Democrats closely tied with the coal industry interests and a President seen as weak - and midterm elections just five months away, this is unlikely. An executive order to move forward with greater regulations on the industry, as the White House is expected to do, is bound to face legal challenges again.

Biden said that the verdict risked the country’s ability to ensure clean air and battle the climate crisis, but pledged a series of actions to pursue his goals.

“My administration will continue using lawful executive authority, including the EPA’s legally-upheld authorities, to keep our air clean, protect public health, and tackle the climate crisis. We will work with states and cities to pass and uphold laws that protect their citizens. And we will keep pushing for additional Congressional action, so that Americans can fully seize the economic opportunities, cost-saving benefits, and security of a clean energy future,” he said.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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