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Supreme Court to review EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases and address climate crisis

<i>Maddie McGarvey for CNN</i><br/>The John Amos Power Plant
Maddie McGarvey for CNN
The John Amos Power Plant

By Ariane de Vogue and Ella Nilsen, CNN

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a case from Republican-led states and coal producers challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases and address the climate crisis.

The news comes as President Joe Biden prepares to travel to Glasgow, Scotland, for a major climate conference where he will try to extract commitments from major world leaders to combat climate change. Biden’s EPA is crafting more stringent rules to limit emissions from power plants that produce electricity from fossil fuels, including coal and natural gas. The electricity sector accounts for 25% of US greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA.

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Crafting strong environmental regulations is a key part of Biden’s climate agenda, in addition to a major climate bill the White House is hoping will pass Congress in the coming weeks. The EPA is also soon expected to issue new proposed regulations limiting methane emissions from oil and gas producers around the country.

Congress’ power

The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case is another sign that the conservative majority is eager to seek limits for when Congress can delegate its authority to federal agencies.

In asking the court to take up the case, GOP-led states said a federal appeals court had granted the EPA “unbridled power” with “no limits” to mandate standards that would be “impossible for coal and natural gas power plants to meet.”

“For years, conservatives have been pressuring the court to reinvigorate long-dormant limits on Congress’ power to delegate regulatory authority to administrative agencies,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law.

“One of the questions the Court has agreed to take up in these cases is whether, in delegating the power to the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, Congress exceeded those limits,” Vladeck said. “If the Court says yes, that will not just curtail the EPA’s power to respond to climate change in a moment in which it’s hard to imagine that Congress will fill the gap; it would have enormous implications for — and impose far greater limits on — the federal government’s regulatory power writ large.”

Clean Air Act authority

This is the latest legal showdown in a years-long case over the EPA’s authority to issue regulations under the landmark 1970 Clean Air Act.

The current controversy dates to 2016 when a 5-4 Supreme Court stepped in to temporarily block the Obama administration’s effort to regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants. In June 2019, the Trump administration sought to ease limits on emissions. A federal appeals court in January 2021 ruled against the Trump administration’s rule holding that it rested “critically on a mistaken reading of the Clean Air Act.”

It’s this January appeals court ruling that states and coal companies are now challenging — prompting a review of the case by the Supreme Court.

In a statement, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey — who leads a 19 state coalition — said he was “extremely grateful” for the court’s willingness to hear the case and that he believed a “significant portion” of the court “shares our concern that the DC Circuit granted EPA too much authority.”

“How we respond to climate change is a pressing issue for our nation, yet some of the paths forward carry serious and disproportionate costs for States and countless other affected parties,” Morrisey had written in court briefs.

The Biden administration had urged the justices not to step in at this juncture but to wait for the Biden EPA to complete its new clean air regulations.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the agency will “will continue to advance new standards to ensure that all Americans are protected from the power plant pollution that harms public health and our economy.”

In a tweet, Regan added: “Power plant carbon pollution hurts families and communities, and threatens businesses and workers. The Courts have repeatedly upheld EPA’s authority to regulate dangerous power plant carbon pollution.”

David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the group would “vigorously defend EPA’s authority to curb power plants’ huge contribution to the climate crisis.”

“Coal companies and their state allies are asking the Court to strip EPA of any authority under the Clean Air Act to meaningfully reduce the nearly 1.5 billion tons of carbon pollution spewed from the nation’s power plants each year — authority the Court has upheld three times in the past two decades ” he said.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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