Back in April, I wrote a post detailing the background and importance of West Virginia v. EPA, so if you are unfamiliar with this case, go check it out before proceeding.
In the last few days of their term, the US Supreme Court rolled out multiple major decisions, including one on West Virginia v. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). In a 6-3 majority, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA does not have the authority to impose broad regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including one that would have required existing power plants to transition to renewable sources (“generation shifting”). By taking away this powerful tool, the ruling dealt a damaging blow to the EPA and to the fight against climate change.
As bad as this may sound, there is a silver lining: it could have been worse. The court did not go as far as some feared and the EPA was not stripped of all of their power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, thus leaving them with options for different approaches. In fact, the EPA still retains most of their authority to regulate emissions, including placing regulations on new power plants.
It's the broader implications on federal agencies, however, could prove troubling in the long run. This case could open up the floodgates for more regulatory approaches to be struck down in court with the mention of a key (and controversial) doctrine called the “major questions doctrine”. This states that courts cannot rely on the statutory interpretations of the agencies on issues of significant political and economic importance. For an agency to have authorization, there must be clear text in the statute allowing them to do so. In the case of West Virginia v. EPA, it was argued that since the Clean Air Act does not explicitly grant the EPA the authority to broadly regulate greenhouse gas emissions, that it is not within their authority to impose generation shifting.
Why is this so important and how it may cause some trouble down the road? First, it lays the foundations for parties to challenge federal agencies in court. This could, in turn, make agencies think twice about taking the necessary steps to prevent disasters (like climate change) to avoid said court challenges. Second, it is unclear as to how the court will decide on what is of vast importance politically and economically in the future.
As for now though, there are still ways for the EPA to effectively operate. See this article by Earthjustice outlines some next steps for the EPA. For a more detailed breakdown of this decision and its implications, listen to Clean Law’s follow-up podcast.