Supreme Court wrestles with EPA authority to regulate carbon in major climate dispute

John Fritze

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court wrestled Monday with one of the most significant climate cases to reach its docket in years, wrangling over whether the Environmental Protection Agency has authority to regulate carbon emissions from power plants.

While the court’s three liberal justices signaled support for the government’s power to impose sweeping restrictions on greenhouse gasses, the court’s six-member conservative bloc was harder to read after more than two hours of oral argument. Nineteen states, led by West Virginia, are challenging the regulations.

The case before the court begins with a Clean Power Plan from President Barack Obama’s administration – never implemented – that would have required states to reduce emissions by shifting power plants away from burning coal. But the questions the court must confront are far deeper: How much authority federal agencies have to regulate absent specific guidance in a law passed by Congress.

That debate has been playing out in a series of cases at the Supreme Court, including recent decisions to block the Food and Drug Administration’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium as well as President Joe Biden’s attempt to require large employers to implement test-or-vaccine requirements to combat the pandemic.

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The appeal has its genesis in an Obama administration effort in 2015 to significantly reduce power sector emissions to address climate change. The Supreme Court blocked those regulations from taking effect and President Donald Trump’s administration repealed the rules in 2017, easing the requirements on the plants.

Craig Station, near Craig, Colo, one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the West, burns coal mined from leased Bureau of Land Management to generate electricity for several states, including Colorado.

With the plan on hold, the legal fight continued. But after Trump took office, the EPA repealed the Obama-era plan. The agency argued that its authority to reduce carbon emissions was limited and it devised a new plan that sharply reduced the federal government’s role in the issue.

New York, 21 other mainly Democratic states, the District of Columbia and some of the nation’s largest cities sued over the Trump plan. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled last year – on the last full day of the Trump administration – and said that the way the Trump administration handled the rollback of the Obama-era rule amounted to a misreading of the 1970 law.

Adding to the unusual nature of the high court’s involvement, the reductions sought in the Obama plan by 2030 already have been achieved through the market-driven closure of hundreds of coal plants.

Because of that, the Biden administration has argued the court should dismiss the case and wait for the new regulations. What the states want, said Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, is a "decision to constrain EPA authority in the upcoming rulemaking." That, she said, is the kind of "advisory opinion" federal courts are not permitted to issue. 

But Lindsay See, West Virginia's solicitor general, said that the appeals court handed down a "judgment that brings back to life a rule that hurts us and that takes off the books a rule that benefits us."

A decision is expected before June.

Contributing: Associated Press