By Maya Walther, Natural Resources Education Intern
The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in West Virginia v. EPA poses a challenge to regulating the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions driving climate change at a time when effective climate action is most critical. This decision restricts the EPA’s power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, which account for approximately a quarter of the nation’s carbon emissions.
For context, this power comes from Section 111 of the Clean Air Act, which authorized the EPA to regulate air emissions from stationary sources (Newburger & Mangan, 2022). In other words, the EPA was tasked with setting GHG emissions standards for power plants in the form of regulations, which hold the force of law, but do not need congressional approval. The purpose of the EPA’s regulatory power is to allow the experts at the EPA to apply scientific expertise in setting and enforcing emissions standards since this requires a great deal of technical knowledge that Congress lacks.
The Court’s decision ruled against the EPA’s proposed use of “generation shifting” measures, a method of regulating existing power plants’ carbon emissions by forcing them to shift to cleaner forms of electricity generation (Christensen et al., 2022). This was the EPA’s proposed method to implement Obama’s Clean Power Plan. However, in West Virginia v. EPA, the Court ruled that this generation-shifting approach was not authorized by the Clean Air Act. According to Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion, the Clean Air Act does not authorize the EPA to make regulations that would have major political and economic effects—such as regulations that would “restructure the American energy market”— without “clear congressional authorization” (West Virginia v. EPA, 2022).
So, what does this mean for the future of carbon dioxide emission regulations?
First, it is important to note that the EPA still has options for regulating GHG emissions from power plants. This decision eliminated a powerful tool in the transition to clean energy, but the EPA can continue to implement technology-based standards that maximize power plants’ efficiency (and limit their emissions) without forcing them to transition away from fossil fuels. Additionally, under the Biden administration, the EPA can still issue a rule targeting new power plants’ emissions.
Additionally, action at the congressional and state levels are not limited by the Court’s decision, and can play a major role in facilitating the transition to clean energy sources. For example, Congress just passed the historic Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $369 billion in climate and energy spending, and should play a significant role in the adoption of renewable energy nationwide. Going forward, Congress could also restore the EPA’s regulatory power by clarifying the EPA’s authority over GHG emissions regulations and push for legislation that regulates fossil fuels (Christensen et al., 2022). State and local governments can also exercise their regulatory authority to implement the shift to renewable energy.
Here in Dane County, steps are already being taken to reduce GHG emissions and address climate change. Dane County has published a Climate Action Plan (CAP) that sets future GHG emission goals and outlines strategies to meet decarbonization goals consistent with recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The CAP sets Dane County on a path to cut GHG emissions in half by 2030, and reach carbon-neutrality by 2050. Learn more about Dane County’s CAP efforts here!
Moving forward, this decision will undoubtedly create a roadblock in the transition to clean energy; however, there are still many paths that can and must be taken to regulate GHG emissions and mitigate climate change. With the effects of climate change already upon us, it is more important than ever to employ all available resources and regulations in facilitating the transition to clean energy.