Explained | The background of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling on limiting the Environmental Protection Agency

The U.S. Supreme Court limited how the anti-pollution law can be used to control carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by a 6-3 majority.

Updated - July 09, 2022 08:31 pm IST

Published - July 09, 2022 07:33 pm IST

Members of Extinction Rebellion DC, ShutDown DC and Arm in Arm DC carry a giant model of the constitution, altered to say We The Corporations during their “Tour of Shame”, marching to the homes of senators they consider most responsible for a reduction in climate change regulations on June 30, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Members of Extinction Rebellion DC, ShutDown DC and Arm in Arm DC carry a giant model of the constitution, altered to say We The Corporations during their “Tour of Shame”, marching to the homes of senators they consider most responsible for a reduction in climate change regulations on June 30, 2022 in Washington, DC. | Photo Credit: Bonnie Cash/Getty Images/AFP

The story so far: The U.S. Supreme Court on June 24 ended the constitutional right to abortion by overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade judgement, but this was not the only contentious decision taken by the top court in June 2022. On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled by a 6-3 vote to limit how the anti-pollution law can be used to control carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The ruling is expected to have severe implications for the country’s efforts to reduce the effects of climate change. President Joe Biden has announced plans to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of 2030 and to have an emissions-free power sector by 2035.

In its ruling in the West Virginia versus Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) case, the Supreme Court said that the Clean Air Act does not give EPA the broad authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

The Clean Air Act

The 1955 Air Pollution Control was the first federal legislation about air pollution. It was not till the 1963 Clean Air Act, however, that a federal legislation tackled the issue of controlling air pollution. The 1970 version of the Act allowed the development of regulations that limit emissions from stationary and mobile sources. Incidentally, 1970 was also the year when the first-ever Earth Day was celebrated as a result of a growing consciousness about the environment and the need to protect it. P

The 1970 Act established four major regulatory programmes: the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), State Implementation Plans (SIPs), New Source Performance Standards (NSPS), and National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAPs). It also provided for expanding the enforcement authority. The EPA was created in December 1970 to implement the requirements included in the Act.

Amendments were added to the Clean Air Act in 1977 and 1990 since many parts of the country had failed to meet deadlines to achieve NAAQS. In 1990, the act was amended to increase the authority and responsibility of the federal government towards the objective of clean air. It also authorised programmes for acid deposition control from acid rain, and established permit programme requirements and a plan to phase out chemicals that deplete the ozone layer.

What are the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS)?

NAAQS are levels of harmful pollutants allowed in accordance with rules set by the EPA under the Clean Air Act. These are pollutants that are common in outdoor air and considered harmful for public health and environment. EPA has set allowable levels for pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, particulate matter, and others.

What is the Environmental Protection Agency?

Environmental consciousness was at its height in the U.S. in 1970. A massive oil spill in California’s Santa Barbara in 1969, along with deteriorating air quality contributed to growing concerns about the quality of the environment and the need to preserve it. In early 1970, U.S. President Richard Nixon delivered a 37-point message to the U.S. Congress and Senate,asking for national air quality standards, requesting funds to improve water treatment facilities, and ordering a clean-up of federal facilities that had fouled air and water, among other things. The President also created a council to study how federal government programmes can reduce pollution. The council recommended consolidating federal environmental responsibilities under a new agency – the Environment Protection Agency. Setting and enforcing standards for air and water quality and for individual pollutants, and research on the impact of important pollutants were listed among the responsibilities laid out for the EPA.

The proposal to set up the EPA was approved by both Houses of the U.S. Parliament and William Ruckelshaus took oath of office as the agency’s first administrator in December 1970.

Obama’s Clean Power Plan and Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy Rule

The Clean Power Plan was announced by former U.S. President Barack Obama, issued by the EPA under the Clean Air Act. It set the first-ever limits on carbon pollution emitting from power plants in the country.

The Clean Power Plan allowed states to set their own flexible plans towards cleaner energy. Under the plan, enforceable carbon pollution were supposed to kick in by 2022. According to EPA projections, the Clean Power Plan would have reduced the electric sector’s carbon pollution by 32 per cent nationally, relative to 2005 levels.

Although the plan to move towards cleaner energy was made to mitigate environmental pollution, it would have also impacted the economy of regions that are heavily dependent on coal. West Virginia, the main petitioner in the case, is the second-largest coal producer in the country.

The Clean Power Plan never took off. It was challenged inCongress but the resolution to block it was vetoed by President Obama. Soon after EPA announced the new rule, a group of states challenged it in court, arguing that the EPA overstepped its authority by issuing the Clean Power Plan.

On February 9, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the EPA to not enforce the plan even before the lower court’s ruling. This was the first time ever that the Supreme Court had stayed a regulation before a judgement by the Court of Appeals, according to a New York Times report.

Donald Trump assumed office after President Obama’s second term ended.In March 2017, President Trump signed an executive order directing EPA to withdraw and rewrite the Clean Power Plan. Rolling back President Obama’s policies to curb the effectsof climate change was a poll promise made by Mr. Trump.

EPA eventually repealed the rule in 2019, saying that the Clean Power Plan was “in excess of its statutory authority”.

Meanwhile, under President Trump, the EPA came up with the Affordable Clean Energy rule (ACE) to replace Obama’s Clean Power Plan. ACE was unveiled in June 2019 and it set guidelines for states to develop performance standards for power plants to boost the amount of power produced relative to the amount of coal burned. In August 2019, 22 states and seven cities of the U.S. challenged ACE by filing a petition in a federal appellate court.

Other parties, including West Virginia, North Dakota, Westmoreland Mining Holdings LLC, and The North American Coal Corporation (NACC) intervened to defend ACE. The Court of Appeals then consolidated 12 petitions for review into one case.

On January 19, 2021, the court struck down the ACE rule, followed by another change in administration when Joe Biden took over as the President of the country. During his electoral campaign, Mr. Biden had promised to make countering climate change a priority of his administration.

EPA moved the court a month later to partially stay the issuance of its mandate as it pertained to the Clean Power Plan, to ensure that this Act does not immediately go back into effect with the change in administratio

“Voluntary cessation does not moot a case unless it is absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behaviour could not reasonably be expected to recur,” the court said in its ruling in June when it curtailed EPA’s authority to limit emissions.

Chief Justice John Roberts and the remaining conservatives on the Bench—Justices Samuel Alito Jr., Neil M Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett—formed part of the majority. Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible solution to the crisis of the day. But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme in Section 111(d). A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion of the court. 

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