This story originally appeared in Common Dreams on June 30, 2022. It is shared here with permission under a Creative Commons license.
The US Supreme Court’s right-wing majority handed down a decision Thursday that will severely limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, undermining the federal government’s ability to combat the climate emergency.
In its 6-3 ruling in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, the court’s conservative justices—led by Chief Justice John Roberts—sided with the coal industry and Republican attorneys general who sought to curb the EPA’s rulemaking powers under the Clean Air Act.
Amy Coney Barrett, one of the right-wing justices who voted to limit the EPA’s authority, has family ties to the fossil fuel industry.
Liberal Justice Elena Kagan warned in her dissent that “today, the court strips the Environmental Protection Agency of the power Congress gave it to respond to ‘the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.'”
Environmentalists echoed that assessment in response to the majority’s decision, the latest in a series of hugely consequential rulings over the past week. According to EPA data, the power sector represents the United States’ second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
“A Supreme Court that sides with the fossil fuel industry over the health and safety of its people is anti-life and beyond broken,” said John Paul Mejia, national spokesperson for the youth-led Sunrise Movement. “We cannot and will not let our Democratic leaders standby while an illegitimate court and the GOP goes on the offense.”
Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said in a statement that the court’s ruling is “part of a broad-based assault on the ability of regulators to protect our air, water, and climate.”
“Long-sought by corporate polluters, industry-backed think tanks, and politicians who serve monied fossil fuel interests, this decision strikes at the heart of federal experts’ ability to do their jobs,” added Hauter, who stressed that “while this ruling intends to hamstring the federal government’s ability to regulate dangerous emissions, it does not signal the end of climate action.”
“The climate movement must and will continue to pressure agencies and elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels to enact policies that ensure a swift reduction in climate pollution and an end to the fossil fuel era,” Hauter said. “The Supreme Court will not stand in the way of the fight for a livable planet.”
The court’s ruling spells serious issues for President Joe Biden’s vow to put the US on a path to 100% clean electricity by 2035. Meanwhile, the administration is moving ahead with oil and gas leasing on public lands, drawing backlash and legal action from climate groups.
The People vs. Fossil Fuels coalition, made up of more than 1,000 US-based environmental groups, called on Biden to use his still-existing authority to “declare a climate emergency and stop new fossil fuel leases, exports, pipelines, and other infrastructure today.”
“Using authorities under the National Emergencies Act and the Defense Production Act,” the coalition noted, “the president could also halt crude oil exports, stop offshore oil and gas drilling, restrict international fossil fuel investment, and rapidly manufacture and distribute clean and renewable energy systems.”
Climate advocates are apprehensively watching the US Supreme Court Thursday morning as it’s expected to deliver a ruling that could imperil the federal government’s regulatory authority to rein in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, striking a potentially fatal blow to global efforts to fight the climate crisis.
The closely watched case, formally known as West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, is the culmination of a yearslong legal campaign by Republican attorneys general and right-wing activists financed by the oil and gas industry, which is hoping the high court’s right-wing supermajority will hand down a decision that guts the EPA’s rulemaking authority.
If the court does just that, it would spell doom for President Joe Biden’s stated goal of transitioning the U.S. to a 100% clean electricity sector by 2035. As the Washington Post notes, West Virginia v. EPA “comes before a Supreme Court that’s even more conservative than the one that stopped the Obama administration’s plan to drastically reduce power plants’ carbon output in 2016.”
“This will undoubtedly be the most important environmental law case on the court’s docket this term, and could well become one of the most significant environmental law cases of all time,” said Jonathan Adler, an environmental law expert at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.
Given the United States’ status as the world’s largest historical emitter and second-largest current emitter of planet-warming carbon dioxide, the Supreme Court’s decision will have serious ramifications for global efforts to avert climate catastrophe.
“The Supreme Court could hand down an extreme decision in the case of West Virginia v. EPA, which would devastate the federal government’s ability to curb climate chaos,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) tweeted late Wednesday. “The Supreme Court must not give corporations license to recklessly destroy our planet.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) similarly warned earlier this week that the Supreme Court’s ruling “could unleash a new era of reckless deregulation that will gut protections for all Americans and the environment.”
During oral arguments over the case earlier this year, the Supreme Court’s conservative justices appeared inclined to restrict the EPA’s regulatory authority to slash carbon emissions—authority that the court affirmed a decade and a half ago in Massachusetts v. EPA.
Climate experts and advocates fear the worst from the industry-friendly Supreme Court majority.
“Each morning at 10 am, my anxiety spikes,” Sara Colangelo, director of the Environmental Law and Justice Clinic at Georgetown University Law Center, told the Post Thursday morning, referring to the time the court’s ruling is expected to drop.