We are taking a break from our chronological coverage of domestic environmental policy to cover the June 30th Supreme court case ruling of West Virginia vs. EPA. At a high level, the ruling “...narrowed the breadth of powers the Environmental Protection Agency has to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act” (Pita)... but what does this really mean?
Basically, the supreme court ruled that the EPA does not have the authority to limit the emissions created by existing power plants, which effectively eliminates that chance for the EPA to set renewable energy standards that could reduce emissions within the power sector (“What Does West Virginia v. EPA Mean for Climate Action?”). Though this ruling is coming now, the case of West Virginia vs. EPA has been going on for many years, and touches on an Obama era EPA regulation under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, known as the Clean Power Plan. The Clean Power Plan, “...required plants to reduce their carbon emissions or fund a shift to renewable energy” (Liptak). This process, known as ‘generational shifting’ was meant to reduce the emissions created by the power sector, one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses.
Essentially, because the Clean Power Plan was never properly implemented due to judicial holdings, and then being repealed under the Trump administration in 2019, the West Virginia vs. EPA ruling was the final opportunity for the Clean Power Plan to take shape. However the supreme court ruled that the EPA did not actually have enough authority under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, and therefore did not have the right to set emission standards for power plants (“EPA’s Clean Power Plan Struck Down by SCOTUS”).
However, though a significant loss, the ruling does not eliminate the EPAs authority altogether. The setback is significant for implementing generational shifting within the power sector and setting emission standards for existing power plants, but does not place a limit on the EPAs power to regulate emissions for future plants, which it can do under section 111(b) of the Clean Air Act (“What Does West Virginia v. EPA Mean for Climate Action?”). Additionally, the EPA does still have authority over conventional air pollutants related to public health, and is still able to “tackle air pollution and climate change” (“What Does West Virginia v. EPA Mean for Climate Action?”).
All told, the court ruling does not technically change what the EPA can enforce. The agency will still have the ability to regulate air pollutants. However, emissions from power plants are NOT considered conventional air pollutants. The Clean Power Plan was aimed at changing this to help the EPA limit some of the most potent greenhouse gasses at the source. Unless a different legal framework is figured out that does not involve section 111(d), then the EPA will never have the power to fight greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.
See you next month when we will (barring any other major court rulings) continue on our coverage of domestic environmental policy.
Liptak, Adam. “Supreme Court Strips Federal Government of Crucial Tool to Control Pollution.” The New York Times, 30 June 2022. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/06/30/us/supreme-court-epa.
Pita, Barry G. Rabe and Adrianna. “What Does the Supreme Court’s EPA Ruling Mean for Climate Regulation?” Brookings, 1 July 2022, https://www.brookings.edu/podcast-episode/what-does-the-supreme-courts-epa-ruling-mean-for-climate-regulation/.