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Supreme Court Strikes Blow To Administrative State, Narrows EPA Authority To Cap Carbon Emissions

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The Supreme Court restricted the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to cap carbon emissions on Thursday in another landmark ruling to end a historic term.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia v. EPA that the independent administrative agency does not possess the unilateral rule-making authority to implement emissions limits on existing power plants.

“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,'” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme. … A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body.”

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett each voted in favor with Roberts. Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion, and Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissent.

“Congress charged EPA with addressing those potentially catastrophic harms,” the dissenting justices wrote on the consequences of a changing climate, “including through regulation of fossil fuel-fired power plants.

“The Clean Air Act directs EPA to regulate stationary sources of any substance that ’causes, or contributes significantly to, air pollution’ and that ‘may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare,” the dissenting justices added. “Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases fit that description.”

The case was brought to the high court from Republican-led states and coal companies to challenge the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which was previously stayed by justices. President Donald Trump replaced the CPP under his administration with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, and the Biden White House is in the process of writing new regulations.

While Roberts’ majority ruling restricted EPA authority to restrict carbon emissions under the plan, the court made no reference to Chevron U.S.A v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., a 1984 case that developed the “Chevron deference.” The Chevron deference allows courts to defer to a federal agency’s interpretation of the statutes they administer so long as Congress’s intent in the statute is deemed ambiguous and the agency’s interpretation of the statute is reasonable.