The Biden administration has vowed to cut U.S. emissions in half by the end of this decade, but it has struggled mightily in its attempts to legislate this outcome, recently having its sweeping climate bill sunk by the opposition of Republican senators as well as Joe Manchin, the centrist Democratic senator from West Virginia.
The Supreme Court has added to the administration’s woes with its most recent ruling. In a 6-3 decision, the Court has chosen to support a case brought by West Virginia that demands the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) be limited in how it regulates greenhouse gases released by the energy sector.
Even though emissions from coal are contributing to heatwaves and worsening both flooding and droughts all over the world—not to mention killing millions of people through toxic air—West Virginia contended that, as they put it, “unelected bureaucrats” at the EPA should not be allowed to reshape its economy by limiting pollution—West Virginia is a major coal mining state.
In the end, a majority of the justices sided with West Virginia, including Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote:
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.
Joining Roberts were all five of the other conservative justices: Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas, and Amy Coney Barrett. The three liberal justices—Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Stephen Breyer—dissented.
It is not just pollution from the energy sector that the new ruling could affect. It could also have major consequences for the federal government’s ability to set standards and regulate in areas as far ranging as consumer protections, clean air and water, banking, public health, and workplace safety.
The conservative wing of the court is looking to fundamentally change what the federal government is and what it does, and this ruling may prove to be a landmark moment in conservative ambitions to dismantle what it terms the “regulatory state,” allowing it to strip away protections from Americans across a wide range of areas.
As Kagan pointed out in her dissent, stripping away power from the agencies could also leave technical decisions to a political body that may not understand them:
“First, members of Congress often don’t know enough—and know they don’t know enough—to regulate sensibly on an issue. Of course, members can and do provide overall direction. But then they rely, as all of us rely in our daily lives, on people with greater expertise and experience. Those people are found in agencies.”
But if the court continues on its current path, the expertise of the federal government’s agencies will soon become a non-entity.