WASHINGTON – In a move expected to hurt the U.S. government’s ability to meet its climate commitments, the Supreme Court on Thursday restricted the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, prompting Washington’s governor to promise more action to curb pollution at the state level.
In a 6-3 decision along ideological lines, the court’s conservative justices ruled that Congress, in the Clean Air Act, had not given the federal government broad authority to limit how much carbon dioxide coal-fired plants can emit. Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said the ruling means states will need to do more to limit air pollution that contributes to climate change.
“The U.S. Supreme Court took a wrecking ball to the ability of the federal government to restrain pollution,” Inslee said in a news conference Thursday, adding that the decision exposes Americans to a health risk and “calls upon us in the state of Washington to redouble our efforts.”
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that even if capping carbon emissions to force the nation to transition away from coal as a source of electricity is a “sensible” solution to climate change, “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 court’s three liberal justices joined in a fiery dissent, authored by Justice Elena Kagan, that addressed the decision’s implications head-on.
“Whatever else this court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change. And let’s say the obvious: The stakes here are high,” she wrote. “The court appoints itself – instead of Congress or the expert agency – the decision maker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening.”
Republicans in Congress hailed the high court’s ruling as a victory for the separation of powers, arguing that lower court decisions had let the executive branch exercise a power the legislative branch didn’t explicitly give.
“This ruling rightly rejects egregious overreach from the EPA and is a big win for American energy,” Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho wrote on Twitter.
Todd Myers, director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center, a Seattle-based conservative think tank, pointed out that Inslee celebrated a state law passed by Washington’s Legislature last year to limit carbon emissions while decrying a court ruling that says such measures need legislative approval. That law, the Climate Commitment Act, will go into effect Jan. 1.
In a statement, Myers said market forces – not lawmakers or courts – have driven a reduction in carbon emissions over the past decade, a point Kagan made in her dissent.
State Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said the Supreme Court ruling takes away an important tool for the EPA, but state and federal legislators can do more to combat climate change.
“There’s a lot of things that we can be doing as a state,” Riccelli said. “But we are a piece of a nationwide puzzle, and the United States is a piece of a global puzzle, and we should be doing our part to make sure that we have a future for my kids and kids across Washington state and this world.”
In a statement, President Joe Biden called the ruling “another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards,” following a week of decisions by the high court’s conservative majority that have devastated progressives.
“While this decision risks damaging our nation’s ability to keep our air clean and combat climate change,” Biden said, “I will not relent in using my lawful authorities to protect public health and tackle the climate crisis.”
As president, Biden has limited tools at his disposal to meet his goal of cutting U.S. carbon emissions in half by 2030, based on 2005 levels. Democrats in Congress included climate provisions in a sweeping tax and spending bill last year that stalled amid opposition from conservative Democratic senators.
One of those senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has personal investments in the coal industry but is reportedly working with party leaders on a scaled-back climate bill. It’s unclear if that legislation will pass before the end of the year, when Democrats are expected to lose control of at least one chamber of Congress.
Democrats hope the string of rulings released at the end of the Supreme Court’s term – including decisions restricting abortion rights, tribal sovereignty and gun safety laws – will motivate voters to support their candidates in November’s election.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to restrict EPA’s authority to regulate climate emissions sets a dangerous precedent and gives corporate polluters more power,” Washington Conservation Voters, an environmental activist group, wrote on Twitter. “We must and will fight back to address our climate crisis and protect our communities.”