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Arthur Christory / Gavel Media

West Virginia v. EPA: What Is At Stake?

At the end of February, the Supreme Court heard the first oral arguments for West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). At first glance, the case of a coal-dependent state suing the environmental agency tasked with regulating its lethal practices probably seems like an everyday occurrence. It might not cause you to worry. This time, though, it probably should. A ruling in favor of West Virginia would cause a disastrous ripple effect that would harm the environment, the effectiveness of regulatory agencies, and potentially electrical companies themselves. 

Republican governed states and private coal companies are petitioning in fear that the EPA could hypothetically exercise power that would afflict unjust harm to the industry (aka, hurt profits). To convolute West Virginia's logic even further, they are concerned about the potential impacts of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan: a plan that was repealed in 2019, later replaced by President Trump’s soft-on-energy-execs, hard-on-the-environment Affordable Clean Energy Plan

West Virginia v. EPA stirred up so much confusion that the EPA released a memo clarifying that the Biden administration has no intention to reinstate the Clean Power Plan. So, how can a state sue the EPA over the threat of a long-gone piece of legislation? Further, what does it say that the highest court in the United States would even take on such a case? 

There is more at stake for regulatory agencies in this decision than the EPA’s right to hypothetically implement an already-dead piece of legislation. The collateral damage of this ruling could be devastating throughout the federal government. Ruling in favor of West Virginia would not only have catastrophic effects on the EPA’s ability to control power plant emissions, but it would also hinder the power of many other government regulatory agencies in the process. This ruling has the potential to dictate how Congress authorizes regulatory agencies to, at the most fundamental level, regulate

Regulatory agencies are the enforcers of the federal government. Without them, the private sector has no incentive to abide by federal law. They can act far more efficiently than Congress can, as they are not twisted up in the partisan gridlock that Congress so often finds itself in. For the EPA, this allows them to hold polluters accountable as long as it falls within their congressionally-approved duties. This is significantly more effective than Congress attempting to regulate them on their own. 

Ironically, this ruling may actually backfire on some energy companies. In fact, some sector groups are hesitant to back the plaintiffs. When fossil fuel companies are sued for unethical practices, they often fall back on the argument that their operations are regulated by the EPA. If EPA oversight is gutted, so is the first line of defense in their own frequent legal battles. 

This potential missed step on the part of the energy sector may seem insignificant at first, but actually reveals a sobering truth about the game of bureaucratic chicken that our nation is caught up in. It seems there is no sacrifice too great to maintain operations as usual in the energy sector—the most prominent contributing industry to American greenhouse gas emissions—quite literally fueling the climate crisis.

The court accepting this "case about nothing" may itself be an indicator of an unfortunate verdict for the EPA and planetary wellbeing alike. Historically, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the EPA in other regulatory disputes. Unfortunately, as is evident in other concerns such as Roe v. Wade being possibly overturned, legal precedents hold little weight when stacked against the Court’s 6-3 conservative majority. This tipped scale signifies a grim reality: the case’s fate will inevitably be decided by the conservative Justices. 

With few mentions of climate change in the two hours of questioning and oral arguments heard on the first day, the Court’s lack of concern with the impending climate crisis is clear. As indicated by the UN’s most recent climate change report, Earth is currently facing a human-induced “code red” situation, with less time than previously expected to control the climate crisis. Science points toward the need for more aggressive conservation and regulatory laws. A ruling that would disempower the nation’s most expansive environmental regulatory force can only hinder our chances at slowing climate change’s disastrous effects. Yet, the Court’s conservative majority may take this opportunity to further strip agency from the EPA, and with it, the protection of the land, air, and water they oversee.

For President Biden, who ran on promises to address climate change, this ruling could be another blow to his administration’s already faltering climate response. Tensions are already intensified in the Democratic Party as Senator Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia sided with Republicans in opposing Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ legislation. Resistance to climate progress from coal-rich states and their representatives is tanking the nation’s last hope at addressing climate change before it is too late. This sort of stagnation on such an urgent issue is unforgivable and displays the indisputable need for stronger regulatory enforcement, not the opposite. 

A verdict is expected sometime this summer. Until then, I will be waiting patiently to see if the highest court decides to gut the Environmental Protection Agency when protection is what the environment needs more so now than ever. 

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