SCOTUS Ruling Says EPA Must Get Permission to Regulate Power Plant Emissions

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Between the January 6 hearings and a series of controversial Supreme Court decisions, Washington DC has been getting pretty heated the last two weeks.

On Thursday, the Court decided it wasn’t going to end there, issuing a ruling that could make the city even hotter — literally. Justices struck down some powers of America’s top environmental regulator to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Delegation Before Regulation

In the leadup to a larger pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the US has set out to make 100% of the electricity it produces carbon-free by 2035. Overall, the electricity sector is the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, accounting for 25% of the total in 2020 according to the EPA. That means achieving the energy transformation will not be cheap — a 2019 report by energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie estimated the cost of decarbonizing the US power grid at $4.5 trillion.

Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling was about how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could restrict emissions from power plants to meet those goals. The Court isn’t opposed to the EPA having powers to curtail emissions, but where the majority and dissenting justices split was over how the agency obtains such powers:

  • The majority 6-3 opinion, authored by chief justice John Roberts, ruled the EPA wasn’t authorized by Congress to reduce carbon emissions when it was founded in 1970. “A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body,” Roberts wrote, ruling the EPA would need to get permission from Congress before mandating emissions levels.
  • Elena Kagan, one of the dissenting justices, argued Congress already granted the EPA such authority “when it broadly authorized EPA in Section 111 to select the ‘best system of emission reduction’ for power plants,” and said the limits imposed by the majority opinion “fly in the face of the statute Congress wrote.”

Partisan reaction to the ruling lined up exactly where you think it did. Conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation called the ruling a “major step to restore representative government” while a White House spokesperson called it a “devastating decision.”

The Plan Who Wasn’t There: This was a particularly strange case because it concerned an Obama-era plan to mandate coal fire plants to cut emissions that never came into effect. Several states, including Texas and Kentucky, nevertheless challenged that plan all the way to the highest court and won.