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SCOTUS Scales Back EPA’s Authority to Respond to Climate Change

Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision on the case West Virginia v EPA that sharply limits the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to address greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other industrial sources.


In the 6-3 decision, the court effectively preserved EPA’s authority to require existing power plants to become more efficient or install available technology to reduce air pollution emissions, including greenhouse gas emissions. However, the court barred the EPA from requiring power companies to switch from coal to less carbon intensive energy sources like natural gas, solar or renewable energy sources. The court ruled that forcing an energy source to transition was a “major question” and that Congress had not given the agency explicit authority to determine the appropriate energy sources for the U.S. economy.


The dissenting justices noted that climate change continues to be a critical environmental and public health issue and that the court had effectively intervened in setting environmental policy and setting aside the expertise and authority of a federal agency tasked with developing environmental policy.


The dissenting justices also noted the extremely unusual procedural steps the U.S. Supreme Court has taken throughout consideration of the case West Virginia v EPA, including issuing a stay of implementation of the rule even before the rule had been challenged in a lower court (an unprecedented move for the U.S. Supreme Court). Further the minority justices noted that there was no ripe issue for the Court to decide on. The original nexus of the case was a challenge to the Obama Administration Clean Power Plan, which was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court and repealed by the Trump Administration. The Trump climate plan – known as the Affordable Clean Energy rule was blocked by D.C. District Court of Appeals and then rescinded by the Biden Administration. The Biden Administration has not yet issued its climate emissions proposed rule. Because both the Obama proposed rule and the Trump proposed rule had been blocked by the court and rescinded by the subsequent Administration, there was effectively no ripe legal challenge for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on making the court’s decision highly unusual on many levels.


The ATS led an amicus brief – or friend of the court – legal briefing of nearly 20 leading medical and public health organizations supporting the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and to urge the Court to preserve the agency’s authority. The amicus brief shared with the Court the current adverse health effects already seen from climate change and projected likely future adverse health effects with further climate change.


“The court’s decision is deeply disappointing and will make it much harder for the U.S. to take the necessary immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said ATS Environmental Health Policy Committee Vice Chair Alison Lee, MD MS. “I take some solace in the fact that EPA is not powerless to respond to climate change. Now that the court has spoken, the EPA must move quickly to use its remaining authority to respond to the global climate crisis by curbing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other industrial sources.”

Last Reviewed: July 2022