The Supreme Court ruling Thursday that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate climate change was a win for conservatives who have long sought to shrink the “administrative state,” a power federal agencies wield over large swaths of the U.S. economy and everyday life.
The ruling put the brakes on President Biden’s climate agenda by shifting the rule-making power back to Congress, where most climate change policy has stalled.
Republicans heralded the ruling as a reprieve from onerous government intrusion.
“The Constitution states clearly that the lawmaking process lies with the people and their elected representatives, not with opaque federal agencies,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said in a statement. “Today’s decision frees Kentucky’s power producers to provide their customers with cheaper, more reliable electricity.”
Sen. Steve Daines, Montana Republican, said the decision “ensures that the Biden administration will not be able to weaponize the EPA to shut down American energy and further its radical anti-energy agenda.”
On the other side, environmentalists and climate change activists have warned that it could have far-reaching implications for both combating climate change and how the federal government sets other regulations.
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“The court has placed its thumb on the scales — an anti-regulatory thumb — that’s going to make it much more difficult for agencies to regulate,” Robert Glicksman, an environmental law professor at George Washington University, said in an interview before the ruling.
Mr. Glicksman made the case that the decision could actually increase energy costs for some consumers by constraining the government’s authority to implement emissions trading policies, also known as cap and trade, that can be cost-efficient methods for utility companies to reduce their carbon footprint while passing savings to customers.
The anger on the left reverberated on Capitol Hill.
“The decades-long fight to protect citizens from corporate polluters is being wiped out by these MAGA extremist justices,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, fumed on Twitter. “Every Republican who helped seat these justices is complicit. It’s all the more imperative that we soon pass meaningful legislation to fight the climate crisis.”
The ruling leaves climate activists feeling as though the deck is stacked against them at the federal level thanks to a gridlocked Congress and a weakened EPA.
That’s why Kat Maier, national coordinator of the youth-led climate action group Fridays for Future, said their main target for advancing environmental policies should now turn to the local and state level.
“This is going to make it all the more important to organize locally, put pressure on any kinds of regulatory bodies that are local and state because the only other kind of way there can be climate action now is through President Biden,” Ms. Maier said.
Other environmental activists also are frustrated with Mr. Biden. They want him to more aggressively use his executive authorities for matters like declaring a climate emergency and invoking the Defense Production Act to force more action on transitioning to clean energy, which he has been unwilling to do.
“All of those are things he can still do, but he’s not doing any of them,” Ms. Maier said. “There’s no way that we can actually rely on him pulling through.”
Mr. Biden has taken steps to curb fossil fuel used by the federal government, such as transitioning its vehicle and school bus fleets to electric. It also has a plan to build a nationwide network of electric vehicle charging stations to make ownership more enticing.
But reinstating EPA‘s broad powers would require an act of Congress, where there is a stalemate on climate change policy.
Mr. Glicksman also emphasized the environmental and health risks posed by the ruling. Through an amicus brief in support of the EPA, several of his GW colleagues warned about the public health implications that could be “profoundly damaging to human health, the planet and future generations.”
“The more tools the court takes away from the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, the harder it’s going to be for the U.S. to achieve its own greenhouse gas reduction goals or contribute to reductions that the international community envisioned,” Mr. Glicksman said. “That’s the most obvious takeaway.”
Although the legal action that produced the high court‘s decision was backed by two coal companies — North American Coal Corporation and Westmoreland Mining Holdings, LLC — much of the power sector sided with the EPA. The power companies argued that a lack of regulation will open them up to a litigation free-for-all.
“While it may seem counterintuitive that the nation’s investor-owned electric companies, in particular, should favor EPA regulatory authority, the alternative could be the chaotic world of regulation by injunctive fiat,” Edison Electric Institute, a power industry trade group representing U.S. utilities, wrote in an amicus brief in favor of the EPA earlier this year.
In the wake of the ruling, EEI said they would work to evaluate the implications and that their members “remain committed to working with Administrator Michael Regan and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as they undertake a new rulemaking that is consistent with the court‘s decision.”
Perhaps more importantly, advocates of the EPA have argued that complex regulations should be left up to policy wonks at relevant agencies rather than leaving the complicated, time-consuming process to elected officials who are not experts.
Congress has left the authorities of executive branch agencies ambiguous — including the EPA — partly for this reason, environmental activists and experts said.