The Most Important Climate Case to Reach the U.S. Supreme Court in Years Begins Today

A case is being heard by the Supreme Court in which its conservative majority may use it to stop Biden’s efforts to fight climate change.

The administration already is dealing with congressional refusal to enact the climate change proposals in President Joe Biden’s Build Better Back plan.

Now the justices, in arguments Monday, are taking up an appeal from 19 mostly Republican-led states and coal companies over the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Even though no EPA plan is in place for dealing with power plant carbon, the court decided to take on the case. This has alarm environmental groups. They worry that the court could preemptively undermine whatever plan Biden’s team develops to address power plant emissions. Biden pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half before the end of this decade.
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The court’s broad decision could also weaken regulations that reach far beyond the environment to include workplace safety and consumer protections. Many conservative justices criticize what they perceive as an unchecked federal agency’s power.

Those concerns were evident in the court’s orders throwing out two Biden administration policies aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. Last summer, the court’s 6-3 conservative majority ended a pause on evictions over unpaid rent. The same six justices stopped a mandate that large employers require workers to be regularly vaccinated and tested, as well as wearing a mask while on the job.

Speaking at an event in Washington recently, Patrick Morrisey from West Virginia was asked about his opinion on the matter of the power plant. “Should it be unelected bureaucrats, or should it be the people’s representatives in Congress?” Morrisey said. West Virginia is the most opposed state to broad EPA powers.

But David Doniger, a climate change expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Supreme Court’s consideration of the issue is premature, a view shared by the administration.

He said the administration’s opponents are advancing “horror stories about extreme regulations the EPA may issue in the future. The EPA is writing a new rule on a clean slate.”

The power plant case has a long and complicated history that begins with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. The plan had required the states to cut down on emissions related to electricity generation, in particular by moving away from coal fired plants.

However, that plan was never implemented. In 2016, the Supreme Court acted in a West Virginia lawsuit. Conservatives were in the majority.

The legal battle over the plan continued even though the plan was put on hold. The Obama-era plan was canceled by the EPA after Donald Trump became president. The agency argued that its authority to reduce carbon emissions was limited and it devised a new plan that sharply reduced the federal government’s role in the issue.

New York, 21 other mainly Democratic states, the District of Columbia and some of the nation’s largest cities sued over the Trump plan. Both the repeal and new plans were rejected by the Washington federal appeals court. The decision was null and void while the Trump administration created a new policy.

Adding to the unusual nature of the high court’s involvement, the reductions sought in the Obama plan by 2030 already have been achieved through the market-driven closure of hundreds of coal plants.

The Biden administration has no intention of reviving the Clean Power Plan, one reason Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, the administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, argues the court should dismiss the case.

Some of the nation’s largest electric utilities, serving 40 million people, are supporting the Biden administration along with prominent businesses that include Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Tesla.

The decision will be made by June end.


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