US Supreme Court Just Stripped Federal Climate Policy

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What was the verdict?

The decision argues that the EPA’s actions in a 2015 rule that included limits on emissions from power plants exceeded the agency’s authority.

Limiting carbon dioxide emissions to levels that will force a nationwide transition from using coal to generate electricity could be a sensible ‘solution to the current crisis’, the decision reads. “But it’s not likely that Congress gave the EPA the power to adopt such a regulatory system on its own.”

Only Congress has the power to “make a decision of such magnitude and consequence,” it continued.

This decision is likely to have “broad implications,” says Deborah Sivas, a professor of environmental law at Stanford University. The court doesn’t just limit what the EPA can do about climate policy in the future, she adds; this view “seems to be a major blow to the agencies’ respect”, meaning other agencies may also face restrictions in the future.

The ruling, the latest in a series of bombshell court cases, fell largely along ideological lines. Chief Justice John Roberts was the author of the Majority Opinion, and he was joined by his fellow Conservatives: Justices Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas. Judges Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor disagreed.

What is the decision about?

The main question in the case was how much power the EPA should have to regulate carbon emissions and what it would need to do to accomplish that task. That question was associated with a 2015 EPA rule called the Clean Power Plan.

The Clean Power Plan focused on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, requiring each state to create a plan to reduce emissions and submit it to the federal government.

Several states and private groups immediately challenged the Clean Power Plan when it was released, calling it an oversight on the part of the agency, and the Supreme Court put it on hold in 2016. After a repeal of the plan during Donald Trump’s presidency and some legal back and forth, a Washington, DC district court ruled in January 2021 that the Clean Power Plan did indeed fall within the purview of the EPA.