The fight over climate regulations continues in the United States as the Supreme Court case West Virginia v. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held its oral hearing late last month. The case covered the extent of the EPA’s authority to limit carbon emissions from power plants.
Brief history lesson on this case. All interpretations are based on section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act (CAA), which states that the EPA has authority to regulate emissions based on the “best system of emission reduction”. In 2015, the Obama administration gave the EPA broad power to regulate emissions across the grid in their Clean Power Plan (CPP), arguing that this power is authorized under CAA. This would have set into place what is called "generation shifting," which would require power plants to transition their power generation from coal and gas to renewable sources of energy over time. However, before the CPP took effect, it was put on hold by the Supreme Court then repealed in 2016 by the Trump administration. It was replaced with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule (ACE), narrowing the power of the EPA. In 2021, the D.C. Circuit Court vacated ACE and reopened discussions for the CPP; however, the Biden administration filed to drop the plan. Despite this request, the Supreme Court ruled to review the plan anyways.
The main argument set forth by West Virginia (also representing coal and mining corporations) is that the EPA does not have broad authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions from power plants. They state that the power should not be in the hands of a federal agency, but in those of Congress. The case has been hotly debated because the regulations in question are not actually in effect. Because of this, the EPA argued that there is no legal basis for this case, and thus it should be dismissed.
The outcomes have the potential to severely hinder the EPA’s ability to reduce carbon emissions in the future. It could potentially go as far as preventing Congress from ever delegating powers over emissions reductions to the EPA and even calling into question their other regulatory powers over the environment. The ramifications also extend beyond the EPA and to the integrity of environmental law in the United States.