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Who has the power to regulate our industries? The Supreme Court says the people

While the EPA v. West Virginia ruling gives more regulatory power back to Congress, it could hamper the fight against climate change

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Smog covers downtown Los Angeles on April 28, 2009.

Smog covers downtown Los Angeles on April 28, 2009. The Supreme Court ruled this week on whether the Environmental Protection Agency had the power to set smog standards, instead putting the responsibility back with the legislative branch.

Nick Ut, Associated Press

The Supreme Court ruled against the Environmental Protection Agency Thursday, with a verdict stating the administration used authority it did not possess to regulate emissions from coal plants. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, is focused on maintaining the separation of executive and legislative powers.

Ruling in context

In 2015, the Obama administration set limits on carbon emissions from the nation’s power plants for the first time under the Clean Power Plan. The goal: to reduce emissions by 30% by 2030. This plan took advantage of provisions from a rarely used section — 11(d) — of the Clean Air Act, and allowed the EPA to set aggressive emissions goals using three “building blocks.”

  • Reduce carbon emissions at the facility level by improving methods of coal firing.
  • At the grid level, use more natural gas and less coal.
  • At the grid level, substitute fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.

In 2016, the Supreme Court issued a stay on the plan, halting the EPA from carrying out its regulatory plan, pending the hearing of legal challenges. “This is the first time the Supreme Court has ever issued a stay on regulations before an initial review by a federal appeals court,” according to the American Bar Association.

Four days after the stay was issued, Justice Antoni Scalia died. The original ruling was 5-4 along ideological lines. With Scalia’s death, the balance became a 4-4 tie, meaning the Supreme Court would uphold lower court rulings. The legal challenges were not decided before Obama left office, however, and the Trump administration repealed the plan.

When President Joe Biden came into office, his administration did not pursue reviving the Clean Power Plan. Instead, it started fresh with its own regulation goals, per Nature. This is what makes the Supreme Court Case unusual — there are no active regulations being challenged.

What does the decision impact?

According to the decision, the old plan had “exceeded the Agency’s statutory authority under Section 11(d), by regulating the mix of power production at the grid level instead of the individual facility level.”

The Supreme Court found no evidence that Congress had intended to delegate authority “of this breadth to regulate a fundamental sector of the economy.” This is the primary importance of the case — preventing the executive branch from enacting major regulations without the influence of represented officials.

The implications of this ruling are unknown. The EPA was found to have “discovered authority” in a little-used section of the Clean Air Act and is now reigned in by Congressional power to a greater degree.

The ruling puts more pressure on “states, cities and the private sector — to spearhead climate action,” according to The New York Times. Critics of the ruling worry Biden’s plans for emission reduction plans are based on Obama-era EPA allowances, which would mean greater challenges for the president’s climate agenda.