4 winners and 1 loser in the EPA’s historic move to limit power plant pollution

“The proposed rules are a less elegant and splashy solution than the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, but the complex set of proposals also stands a better chance of withstanding court scrutiny. The EPA breaks down requirements based on the type of plant, its size, and how often it is in use. Utilities, working with states, would ultimately decide how to meet the EPA’s emissions rates by choosing among available technologies. Coal plants, for instance, could fire less carbon-intensive fuels such as hydrogen and gas, to supplement coal. Coal and gas plants can also install carbon capture and storage or sequestration, a technology that removes carbon dioxide at the smokestack to eventually store it underground. Or a plant could bypass all this if it sets a retirement date in the medium term.
As a result, existing coal plants would cut their carbon pollution 90 percent by the end of the decade, unless a plant sets a retirement date before 2040. Existing gas plants get more leeway — only the largest gas plants, less than a third in operation, will have to slash their pollution by 90 percent by 2035.

The EPA makes a dent in coal pollution especially, but it doesn’t eliminate power plant pollution entirely. It leaves a mixed bag of winners and losers.”

Impact of Supreme Court’s climate ruling spreads

“Fallout from the Supreme Court’s attack on federal climate regulations is spreading throughout the executive branch, creating legal uncertainty for rules on topics as far afield as abortion, immigration and even amateur auto racing.

Opponents of federal actions on pipelines, asbestos, nuclear waste, corporate disclosures and highway planning are also seizing on the logic of the court’s June 30 decision, which imposed sharp limits on the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.”

“In their decision, the high court’s six conservative justices invoked what they called the “major questions” doctrine to declare that agencies such as EPA need explicit congressional approval before “asserting highly consequential power” over almost any policy area. But they did not offer a precise definition of what would cause a regulation to qualify as major — a question that agencies and lower courts may now need to spend years wrestling with.”

““If anything’s ambiguous at all, you get people challenging on major questions grounds, and you have to go find out if Congress gave you an extra clear statement,” said Nathan Richardson, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. He called it a reversal of the long-standing tradition of courts deferring to agencies’ policy expertise. “It’s not deference, it’s anti-deference.””

Supreme Court Limits EPA’s Ability To Impose Costly Greenhouse Gas Emissions Cuts

“The U.S. Supreme Court ruled..in the West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency that it “is a major questions case.” As such, the Court ruled 6–3 that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not have clear authority from Congress to regulate the entire U.S. electric power production industry through exercising “unheralded power representing a transformative expansion of its regulatory authority in the vague language” in a rarely used section of the Clean Air Act. This decision will likely curtail future efforts by the Biden administration to significantly cut the emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel-burning power plants that contribute to man-made global warming.”

“So what is the major questions doctrine? “The Supreme Court has declared that if an agency seeks to decide an issue of major national significance, its action must be supported by clear statutory authorization,” explained the Congressional Research Service in a recent analysis. Certainly, the huge costs imposed by new regulations that are not clearly authorized by Congress would seem to qualify as an issue of national significance. In fact, in his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts notes, “EPA’s own modeling concluded that the rule would entail billions of dollars in compliance costs (to be paid in the form of higher energy prices), require the retirement of dozens of coal-fired plants, and eliminate tens of thousands of jobs across various sectors.””

“In her dissent, Associate Justice Elena Kagan counters by pointing out the Obama administration’s EPA calculated that by 2030 the annual public health and climate benefits of proposed regulations under its Clean Power Plan would be between $34 to $54 billion while the costs would amount to $8.4 billion. While electricity would cost more, consumers would save $7 monthly on their electric bills due to increased energy efficiency. A 2016 study in the journal PLOS One similarly found that the health co-benefits outweighed the costs incurred from reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Despite the fact that the benefits of costly and transformative regulations might outweigh their costs that still does not mean for the Court’s majority that their issuance is not a major question requiring clear direction from Congress before going forward.

“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day,'” concludes Chief Justice Roberts. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme in [the Clean Air Act]. A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body.””

The Supreme Court’s EPA ruling isn’t the only legal attack on the environment

“the decision means that agencies like the EPA can’t create regulations that have expansive social and economic impacts on their own, despite decades of precedent doing exactly that. Such rules would now require Congress to specifically create laws to implement them, and given the difficulty of passing any federal legislation, it would drastically impair the EPA’s ability to regulate the pollution that’s heating up the planet.”

“Many of these other cases are still underway, but depending on how they’re decided, they could further erode the government’s tools for addressing the most urgent environmental problems.”

The Supreme Court’s big EPA decision is a massive power grab by the justices

“West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency strikes down a federal environmental regulation of power plants that never took effect, that the Biden administration has no intention of reinstating, and that would have accomplished absolutely nothing even if it had be enforced.

Nevertheless, the Court voted along ideological lines to strike down this regulation that the EPA drafted under authority granted by the Clean Air Act, claiming that it amounts to an “extraordinary” overreach by the EPA. And their decision has enormous implications both for the environment and for the federal government more broadly.

At the very least, the West Virginia decision strips the EPA of its authority to shift energy production away from dirty coal-fired plants and toward cleaner methods of energy production — although market forces have thus far accomplished much of this shift on their own, because coal-fired plants are often more expensive to operate than cleaner plants. The decision could also lead to additional limits on the EPA’s ability to regulate that industry going forward.

The West Virginia decision confirms something that has been implicit in the Supreme Court’s recent decisions governing federal agencies’ power to issue binding regulations under authority granted by Congress: When a majority of the Supreme Court disagrees with a regulation pushed out by a federal agency, the Court has given itself the power to veto that regulation — and it will do so by invoking something known as the “major questions doctrine.”

Under this doctrine, the Court explained in a 2014 opinion, “we expect Congress to speak clearly if it wishes to assign to an agency decisions of vast ‘economic and political significance.’” Thus, if a majority of the Court deems a regulation to be too significant, it will strike it down unless Congress very explicitly authorized that particular regulation.

This doctrine comes from nowhere. Last week, the Court said that abortion is unprotected by the Constitution — leaning heavily on the fact that abortion is not mentioned in the Constitution. But the the major questions doctrine is also mentioned nowhere in the Constitution. Nor can it be found in any statute. The justices made it up. And, at least during President Joe Biden’s administration, the Court has wielded it quite aggressively to veto regulations that the Court’s conservative majority finds objectionable.

Roberts’s majority opinion in West Virginia does put some flesh on the fairly bare bones the justices have previously used to describe when they will declare something to be a “major question.” Roberts faults the EPA for issuing a novel kind of regulation pursuant to a “long-extant” statute that had not previously been used to justify similar actions. He claims that the EPA relied on an “ancillary provision” of the Clean Air Act, rather than a more central provision of that law. And he criticizes the EPA for issuing a regulation which resembles bills that Congress previously considered but did not enact.

But these judgments are divorced from the text of the Clean Air Act itself. And Roberts admits that the major questions doctrine can nuke a regulation even when there is a “colorable textual basis” supporting that regulation — that is, when the actual words of a federal law could support the action taken by a federal agency.

The bottom line after the West Virginia decision is that agencies may still exercise regulatory authority, but only subject to a judicial veto. The Supreme Court has effectively placed itself at the head of much of the executive branch of the federal government.”

The absurd Supreme Court case that could gut the EPA

“Now the West Virginia plaintiffs raise several different legal arguments against the nonexistent Clean Power Plan, several of which could permanently hobble the federal government’s power to regulate if adopted by the Court.

A brief filed by several senior red-state officials, for example, rests heavily on the “major questions” doctrine, a legal doctrine that is currently fashionable among Republican judges but that was also invented entirely by judges and has no basis in any statute or provision of the Constitution.

The major questions doctrine claims that there are fairly strict limits on federal agencies’ power to hand down particularly impactful regulations. As the Court most recently stated in NFIB v. OSHA (2022), “we expect Congress to speak clearly when authorizing an agency to exercise powers of vast economic and political significance.” And several of the plaintiffs in West Virginia argue that the Clean Air Act isn’t sufficiently clear to justify a regulation like the Clean Power Plan.

One problem with this major questions doctrine is that it is vague. The Court has never explained what constitutes a matter of “vast economic and political significance,” or just how “clearly” Congress must “speak” to permit an agency to issue significant regulations. So, in practice, the major questions doctrine largely just functions as a veto power, allowing judges to justify blocking nearly any regulation they do not like. If a judge doesn’t like a particular regulation, they can just claim that it is too big.”

“Other briefs in the West Virginia case suggest that the Clean Power Plan violates the “nondelegation doctrine,” another judge-created doctrine that limits Congress’s power to delegate the power to issue binding regulations to federal agencies. This doctrine is even more vague than the major questions doctrine, and even more capable of being applied selectively to strike down regulations that a particular panel of judges do not like.

As Justice Neil Gorsuch described nondelegation in 2019, a federal law authorizing an agency to regulate must be “‘sufficiently definite and precise to enable Congress, the courts, and the public to ascertain whether Congress’s guidance has been followed.” How “precise” must the law be? That’s up to judges to decide.

Notably because this doctrine outright forbids Congress from delegating certain powers to an agency, a Supreme Court decision that struck down the Clean Power Plan on nondelegation grounds could permanently strip Congress of its power to authorize the EPA to issue major regulations in the future. Indeed, depending on how broadly the Supreme Court worded such a decision, it could impose drastic new limits on every single federal agency.”

“the issues at stake in West Virginia can be summarized fairly concisely. It is a case about a regulation that does not exist, that never took effect, and that would have imposed obligations on the energy industry that it would have met anyway. It also involves two legal doctrines that are mentioned nowhere in the Constitution, and that have no basis in any federal statute.

And yet, West Virginia could wind up permanently hobbling the government’s ability to fight climate change.”

After four years of inaction, the EPA is finally regulating this superpollutant

“HFCs have only been used in appliances since the 1990s, as a replacement for ozone-depleting chemicals, but their use has grown at a terrifying rate. While HFCs still only comprise about 1 percent of total greenhouse emissions, they are thousands of times better at trapping heat than carbon over a 20-year period.”

“another big task awaits for President Joe Biden to rein in HFCs: ratifying the 2016 Kigali Amendment, the global agreement to phase down these dangerous chemicals by 85 percent before 2050. It’s one of many amendments that has been added to the Montreal Protocol since 1987, a treaty that has been used to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals.
Every one of these amendments was ratified and implemented successfully by the US —except Kigali, the one that came along just as Trump and Republicans took power and brought climate action to a standstill.”