By: Spencer Smith
Recently among other controversial Supreme Court decisions, the West Virginia vs EPA case set a new precedent for the future of the EPA’s role in climate change mitigation. On June 30th, the Supreme Court voted in a 6-3 majority to limit the level of authority of the EPA to regulate under a specific provision of the Clean Air Act. This specific provision is in regard to emissions caps from the power sector. Now due to this decision, the EPA must look to Congress for approval and specific documentation to set out specific caps. There is a lot to unpack regarding this decision so it would be advantageous to discuss a bit of background on the Supreme Court and the EPA.
Massachusetts v. EPA
The first climate-centered case that brought the EPA to the Supreme Court was Massachusetts v. EPA. This case, which was decided in April of 2007, found in a 5-4 decision that the EPA is given authority to regulate several greenhouse gases as per the Clean Air Act. The specific concern of the EPA and the final decision was the regulation of tailpipe emissions from various automobiles. It is important to note that the Clean Air Act defines an air pollutant as “any pollution agent or combination of such agents, including any physical, chemical, biological, radioactive (including source material, special nuclear material, and byproduct material) substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters ambient air,” (Clean Air Act 42 W.S.C § 7602(g)). After this case, the EPA found that six greenhouse gases “in the atmosphere may reasonably be anticipated both to endanger public health and to endanger public welfare,” (Massachusetts v EPA). In response to this, three states, Alabama, Texas, and Virginia appeal this decision in 2010. After making it through court again, the U.S. Court of Appeals sided with the EPA upholding the findings that greenhouse gases endanger human health and are likely the culprit behind global warming. This opinion on the dangers of greenhouse gases on human health would stand until 2015.
Michigan v. EPA
The second major court case centered on climate and the EPA was Michigan v. EPA. This case, which was decided in June of 2015, found that the EPA was not being considerate of cost when interpreting the words of the Clean Air Act. Changes to the Clean Air Act enacted in the 1990s directed the EPA to investigate the effects of the emission of hazardous pollutants on public health. The emissions of these pollutants were specifically checked in the power sector. The 1990 changes also stated that the EPA had the authority to regulate the power sector if “regulation is appropriate and necessary after considering the results of the study,” (Michigan v EPA 42 U.S.C. § 7412(n)(1)(A)). The opinion of the court in 2015 stated that this interpretation of the Clean Air Act had “strayed far beyond [the] bounds of reasonable interpretation” (Michigan v EPA) and would cost too much. The main body of this decision was not one of climate concerns but rather the extent of government regulations. The EPA’s greenhouse gas monitoring did not end, but its authority over regulation diminished as a result of this ruling. That remaining amount of authority would stand until the most recent ruling in West Virginia v EPA.
What The Ruling Means for ClimateWhile limitations on the EPA are never positive for climate change mitigation, this decision is extremely limited in its scope. The only aspect to which the EPA is limited in this regard is when it comes to the power sector. Greenhouse gas emissions can come from practically anywhere, so the EPA still has authority over regulations in many other cases. The key takeaway is that regulations can still be set out by the U.S. government, however, this decision puts that responsibility on Congress rather than the EPA. Additionally, this means that all future regulations must have very specific wording when addressing greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector. The main concern of this distribution of power is what it expects of the U.S. Congress. Congress has not passed any major legislation in regard to climate change since 2008. Since Biden’s inauguration, the U.S. has signed back onto the Paris Agreement, signed the Methane Pledge, and created a Carbon Neutrality Executive Order. Although there is positive work being done by the Biden Administration in favor of climate change mitigation, many lack permanency. Like the back and forth the EPA has seen since the Clean Air Act’s creation, the future of authority over greenhouse gas emissions is uncertain. Without stability, it is unlikely that there will be much work done in the actual mitigation of greenhouse gases.
“42 U.S. Code § 7602 - Definitions.” Legal Information Institute, Legal Information Institute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/7602#g.
“Findlaw's United States DC Circuit Case and Opinions.” Findlaw, https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-dc-circuit/1604469.html.