SCOTUS sides with West Virginia, rules EPA has limited authority to regulate emissions from power plants

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The U.S. Supreme Court sided with a West Virginia-led coalition on Thursday when it ruled Congress did not grant broad authority to the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants.

In a 6-3 decision, justices determined the agency does not have the power under the Clean Air Act to “devise emissions caps based on the generation shifting,” emphasizing the EPA does not possess any regulatory authority that Congress has not first approved.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion; the court’s five other conservative justices joined him. Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor — the Supreme Court’s liberal wing — filed a joint dissenting opinion.

Roberts said Congress did not grant the EPA the regulatory authority to limit carbon dioxide emissions that would result in a shift away from coal-fired power plants.

“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 said.

Kagan criticized the majority opinion, saying the Supreme Court’s decision curtails the EPA’s power. She contended Congress tasked the agency with addressing environmental issues — such as climate change — thus giving the EPA the ability to impose rules.

“Congress knows what it doesn’t and can’t know when it drafts a statute; and Congress therefore gives an expert agency the power to address issues — even significant ones — as and when they arise,” Kagan wrote. “The majority today overrides that legislative choice. In so doing, it deprives EPA of the power needed — and the power granted — to curb the emission of greenhouse gases.”

Thursday’s decision ends a saga dating back to the introduction of the Clean Power Plan in 2015; the Obama administration policy was directed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from existing facilities utilizing coal and natural gas. West Virginia succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to issue a stay on the regulation in 2016.

The EPA under the Trump administration repealed the Clean Power Plan in 2019 and proposed the Affordable Clean Energy rule as its replacement, providing states with more flexibility on emission standards.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the Affordable Clean Energy rule in January 2021; the panel determined the Trump administration misinterpreted the Clean Air Act and air quality standards when drafting the regulation.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey led the challenge against the circuit court’s decision; other Republican-led states and coal companies joined Morrisey. The attorney general described his argument as centered on a separation of powers between Congress and federal agencies.

“For many years, we’ve argued that the EPA only had a narrow bit of authority to regulate carbon emissions. I think that the court today amplified that point,” he said Thursday.

Morrisey added the matter also raised questions because of the economic impact of shifting power generation and energy markets.

“That means Congress needs to step in as opposed to unelected bureaucrats,” he said.

“I think what the court did is it recognized that there is a narrow ray of authority with the Clean Air Act, and they want the agency to act consistent with that authority. The broader message, of course, is if you’re dealing with any sort of federal overreach, all the court is saying today is that the decisions have to be limited to what Congress clearly states.”

Members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation — U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Republican Reps. David McKinley, Alex Mooney and Carol Miller — submitted a brief last December supporting the challenge. Capito, the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington led the effort.

“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court is welcome news and further proves that EPA overstepped its authority by imposing enormously burdensome regulations on states to reconfigure our electric grid despite Congress’s rejection,” Capito said in a Thursday press release.

“EPA must follow the law, and as Ranking Member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, I will continue to conduct oversight of EPA to make sure the agency does not attempt to devastate the people and industries of West Virginia as it did with the Clean Power Plan ever again.”

Mooney applauded the decision, stating lawmakers alone should make the decisions impacting the nation’s energy policies. McKinley called the ruling “a major win for America’s energy future.”

The West Virginia Coal Association also congratulated Morrisey.

Gov. Jim Justice praised Morrisey for leading the challenge, adding the ruling prevents agencies from enacting regulations that would hurt fossil fuels and communities reliant on related industries.

“People like to say, ‘D.C. has too much power,’ and they’re right. They’re exactly right,” the governor said during Thursday’s coronavirus briefing.

“For too long, our federal bureaucracy has had almost unlimited, unchecked power over us with little accountability to the public. Agencies shouldn’t get to make unilateral decisions affecting all the lives of all of us without Congress’ vote.”

The decision came on the final day of a historic Supreme Court term that also included justices overturning the Roe v. Wade precedent establishing the guaranteed right to an abortion.

President Joe Biden described the Supreme Court’s decision against the EPA as “another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards.” He announced Thursday that officials will work with the Justice Department on preparing possible actions addressing climate change.

“My Administration will continue using lawful executive authority, including the EPA’s legally-upheld authorities, to keep our air clean, protect public health, and tackle the climate crisis,” he said in a release. “We will work with states and cities to pass and uphold laws that protect their citizens. And we will keep pushing for additional Congressional action, so that Americans can fully seize the economic opportunities, cost-saving benefits, and security of a clean energy future.”

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the Supreme Court’s decision does not change the agency’s commitment to reducing air pollution.

“We will move forward to provide certainty and transparency for the energy sector, which will support the industry’s ongoing efforts to grow our clean energy economy,” he said.

Morrisey said his office is prepared for taking legal action if the Biden administration issues any regulations he deems exceed the executive branch’s power.

“You can go to your legislature, you can go to your state legislature, you can go to your federal legislature and petition for change. That’s what our constitutional system is all about,” the attorney general said.

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