The decision by the majority-conservative US Supreme Court to scuttle the Environmental Protection Agency’s oversight of clean air regulations is undoubtedly chilling for a warming planet. However, it may prove increasingly irrelevant because the pendulum is swinging — and gaining momentum — in favor of combating climate change, and market forces are moving it.
Buried beneath the headlines about the West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency case was a mostly overlooked amicus brief filed in support of the EPA by the Edison Electric Institute. EEI is the trade association representing investor-owned electric companies in every state and the District of Columbia. That’s right, utility companies that service about 220 million Americans want the EPA to continue to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. This is a sea change from the protests power companies lodged against the Obama administration’s 2015 Clean Power Plan, which set guidelines for how states should regulate power plant emissions (naturally, it was repealed under the Trump administration).
As EEI indicated in its brief, submitted along with the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, litigation and technological transformation — and if you read between the lines, public opinion — have changed the industry’s views on power plant emissions. These are costly and profitable points Republicans hadn’t considered when the party laid out its years-long strategy for state attorneys general to challenge clean air standards.
Let’s start with the threat of litigation. As the saying goes, no one can afford to win a lawsuit, much less lose one — or thousands. In its brief, EEI wrote, if the court were to rule in favor of West Virginia, such a decision “could fatally undermine the Clean Air Act’s displacement of federal common law tort actions against electricity providers, clean water utilities, and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters, with potentially dire consequences for the reliability of the Nation’s electricity and water supplies.” In other words, unevenly applied regulations set by states, and not a uniform system set by the EPA, would probably result in multiple lawsuits with multiple plaintiffs and varying decisions resulting in what the brief notes would be “a chaotic system dictated by the interests of individual plaintiffs.” Who wants chaos guiding the United States’ already compromised water supplies? Not those in the West and Southwest, where drought conditions due to climate change are critical.
And then there’s the technological revolution driving profits. From Texas to the Great Plains, the pace of renewable energy investment far outpaces governmental policy requirements because, financially, greener energy — like wind and solar — is proving cheaper to bring online than the operating costs associated with fossil fuels. As noted in the EEI and water agencies’ appeal to the court, “by 2020, 40 percent of America’s electricity was generated from carbon-free resources, including nuclear, hydropower, solar, and wind. As a result, CO2 emissions in 2020 from the entire power sector were down 40 percent from 2005 levels — a 40-year low.” The transition to renewable energy has begun in force. Great news for Massachusetts, where an offshore wind farm is taking shape.
Finally, imagine the backlash from customers if power companies were to renege on their marketing and brand campaign commitments to transition to more renewable sources? They would be held accountable by consumers — the force behind market forces.
Last year, the US Department of Energy released a study showing that, by 2035, solar energy alone could produce 40 percent of the nation’s electricity needs. In May, the operator of the West’s largest coal plant, Talen Energy’s Colstrip power plant, filed for bankruptcy. According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, basic economics has determined that coal-generated power will fall 45 percent by 2030. And this week, the US Department of Energy released its Energy and Employment Report, which found energy jobs outpaced the the overall US workforce in 2021, and that jobs in “net-zero aligned areas” — including renewables and grid storage — accounted for 41 percent of all jobs in the energy field. As for consumers, US sales of electric vehicles rose 76 percent in the first quarter of 2022, doubling their share of the auto market to 5.2 percent. Small but mighty, and growing mightier. That’s all good news.
The bad news? The United States and most of the world is decades behind in addressing humanity’s destruction of Earth’s climate. Life as we know it has already been altered — storms are increasingly more powerful, droughts are accelerating, mass die-offs of animals will continue. Yet much of the technology already exists to reduce impacts. And the American people’s will to force their state and federal governments and corporations to transition away from deadly fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy is growing. Fortunes, by way of good paying jobs and industry profits, will favor the bold by the billions.
America has a long way to go, but momentum is building among the forces who want to fight climate change.