In a 6-3 ruling on June 30, 2022, the United States Supreme Court stripped the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency. Ruling in favor of the fossil fuel-dependent states will prevent future environmental policy to address climate change, and will consequently have a detrimental impact on the environment and international relations.
This case is centered on the Clean Power Plan, 2015 Obama-Era legislation intended to target greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption, and ideally, encourage a shift to renewable energy. The plan, which would enable the EPA to regulate power plant emissions through the Clean Air Act, was brought to the courts by coal and natural gas-dependent states in response to its proposal. Despite the plan failing to be enacted, plaintiffs continued challenging the EPA's authority to regulate emissions. You can read more about the background of the case in an article by Addie Metzger, published for The Gavel earlier this year.
Ultimately, the case revolves around whether the EPA has the authority to restrict greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. In Justice Chief Roberts’ majority opinion, he wrote that in the language of the Clean Air Act, Congress did not grant the EPA sweeping jurisdiction to regulate the energy industry. The conservative court majority invoked the “major questions doctrine”, a judicial principle necessitating Congress to use direct and explicit language to grant an agency power to make sweeping decisions resulting in significant political and economic impacts. In this case, the major question is if the EPA can encourage an economic and political shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
In contrast, Justice Kagan, leading the dissenting opinion of the three liberal justices, discussed the devastating consequences of climate change in harming the environment and public health. In fact, this ruling goes in direct contradiction to the legal precedent set forth by Massachusetts v EPA, a case in which the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the EPA has the legal jurisdiction and responsibility to regulate emissions such as carbon dioxide if they're found to threaten human health.
Jeffrey Fowley, a Boston College Law professor and former attorney for the EPA, stated that in light of this ruling “when it comes to climate change, the EPA won't be able to do very much on its own”. In regards to what the EPA can do for future environmental policy, “they'll be able to make coal plants a little bit cleaner,” he explained, “but that's not gonna do very much at all in terms of pushing the switch to renewables.”
The responsibility to protect public health in light of increasing climate-related crises now falls on Congress. Professor Fowley was doubtful that positive change will occur given the current state of our democratic institutions and their consistent failures to tackle climate change. “It’s not the court case in isolation that's fatal, but it's the combination of Congress never doing anything about climate change,” said Professor Fowley.
Without the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, there is uncertainty about the feasibility of meeting President Joe Biden’s goal of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2030. “It's clear that Biden can't do very much, because, the only regulation that the Supreme court would allow would be to try to make the power plants run a little cleaner, but not to force them away from coal, which is what's really needed”. At this point in time, the world needs dramatic decarbonization of our energy supply, which cannot be achieved without a shift to renewable energy.
“There is an easy solution to this,” Professor Fowley acknowledged, “which would be for the U.S. Congress to act.” Abiding by the major questions doctrine, “the Court is not saying that you can’t do anything about climate change, they’re just saying that it's the Congress that has to specifically authorize it.” However, he was doubtful that Congress will take action, citing the filibuster, pervasive climate change denialism and general incompetence among our political representatives.
As the Supreme Court has significantly restricted the EPA’s abilities in this decision, Professor Fowley argued that the consequences of this will not be isolated to domestic politics. Climate change is borderless and therefore requires global cooperation. However, this decision hinders the ability to fulfill current pledges put forth by the U.S in prior agreements. Professor Fowley explained that Obama’s Clean Power Plan proposal gave him credibility and leverage during Paris Agreement negotiations and that without a governmental plan, the U.S. will not be taken seriously.
Preventing forced emissions reductions and a clean energy shift will hurt the U.S. standing in future international climate cooperation. Professor Fowley went as far as to say “I think it could spiral, and I think it could undo a part of the Paris agreement,” given our credibility and reputation will be further impaired by the inability to act on climate change.
The former EPA attorney and current BC Law Professor questioned where the blame should be placed for restricting the ability to slow climate change asking, “Who should we blame for its unraveling?” He continued by stating that “maybe the Supreme court in part, but I would say even more the U.S. Congress, and of course Donald Trump, and you know, the 50% of Americans who elected him.”
As outlined by Professor Fowley, the ramifications of West Virginia v EPA have left us with an EPA unable to combat climate change and its many dangers and a damaged international reputation. Climate change is a universal issue, therefore it should transcend party affiliations and partisan politics. Although five unelected representatives have made this decision for us all, moving forward, it is the responsibility of anybody with power to combat climate change, requiring simultaneous and purposeful action. The complexity of addressing climate change creates global consequences. While seemingly confined to American agencies, the Supreme Court’s decision endangers those far beyond our borders as well.