today, In a non-existent program ruling that harmed those who sued, the Supreme Court took the opportunity to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from the power sector.
In the summer of a major U.S. Supreme Court decision, West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency It is one of the strange cases on the file. On the one hand, it involves a dispute that does not actually exist. The complaint was about the Clean Power Plan, a set of rules issued by the EPA in 2015 that would push power plants to slash carbon emissions by 2030. Only the plan never succeeded. Fossil fuel executives and Republican officials fumed about its potential economic impact, took to court, and quickly suspended the rules. A year later, when then-President Barack Obama handed the keys to the EPA to Donald Trump, the plan was gone for good.
So environmental advocates were shocked and concerned when the Supreme Court decided to challenge a plan that had already passed the courts. These concerns are not unfounded. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the conservative majority of the six justices, said the consequences of such a policy were too large to be implemented without a more explicit mandate from Congress.
That rationale doesn’t wreak havoc on the EPA as some environmental advocates fear. The decision would still allow the agency to regulate emissions from power plants, albeit more narrowly than before. Nor did the courts take the opportunity to overturn the precedent that agencies such as the EPA can broadly address carbon emissions. But the decision remains a serious blow, underscoring the court’s skepticism of the federal agency’s ambitious action and offering a potential roadmap for future legal challenges to climate policy. “They said, ‘We’re loading the gun today, but we’re not pointing it at anything else right now,'” said Jay Austin, a senior attorney at the Environmental Law Institute, a nonprofit legal group.
“The Court appoints itself — not Congress or expert bodies — as decision makers on climate policy,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent, which was joined by two other liberal justices. “I can’t think of anything scarier than that.”
The dispute, brought by a group of red state attorneys general, hinges on part of the Clean Air Act, which allows the agency to set up “optimal emission reduction systems” at power plants. The issue before the court is one of scope. Perhaps what Congress calls “the best system” means that the EPA can require certain power plants to use mitigation technologies, just as it does for other pollutants. Or maybe it’s a broader mandate that allows for measures that could lead to the closure of coal-fired power plants in favor of producing cleaner energy elsewhere. With the Clean Power Plan, the EPA has opted for a more profound explanation.
But the disagreement hints at a larger legal question: What can government bureaucrats do with the often vague instructions Congress has given them? Washington has traditionally had a certain way: Elected officials can’t be expected to scribble down every detail of every policy, and they don’t want to. So it becomes the job of the regulators, who translate the drafted laws into action. Judges generally don’t like to get in the way of this. Under a principle known as “Chevron Obedience,” referring to a 1984 Supreme Court ruling involving oil companies, the justices have repeatedly said scientists and policy experts are better off doing their jobs.