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Supreme Court limits EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas pollution

Water vapor rose from a coal-fired generating station in Thompsons, Texas.Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

As the world heats up, unleashing frequent floods, fires, and other extreme weather events, the Supreme Court on Thursday sharply curtailed the federal government’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, putting that responsibility on a dysfunctional Congress while dealing another blow to the Biden administration’s efforts to fight climate change.

In a 6-3 ruling that environmentalists called a devastating blow to the climate, the court said the Environmental Protection Agency can’t force the national energy market to move to cleaner power sources without express authorization from Congress.

“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.”

The three liberal justices joined in a dissent written by Justice Elena Kagan that said the majority opinion “deprives EPA of the power needed — and the power granted — to curb the emission of greenhouse gases.”

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“And let’s say the obvious: The stakes here are high,” Kagan wrote. “Yet the Court today prevents congressionally authorized agency action to curb power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions. The Court appoints itself — instead of Congress or the expert agency — the decisionmaker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening. Respectfully, I dissent.”

Yet Congress has proved unable to agree on any kind of major climate legislation, and so for the foreseeable future seems unlikely to authorize new restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Massachusetts and neighboring states have strong policies regulating power plant emissions, including a so-called cap-and-trade effort among 11 Eastern states that aims to reduce carbon emissions. Hours after the court ruled Thursday, Massachusetts issued a blueprint for aggressively transitioning the state from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

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But other states with coal-burning plants don’t have such controls, and the decision means the EPA can’t force them to shift to cleaner power without Congress’s say-so.

That will put even more onus on states such as Massachusetts, California, and New York to lead on emissions cuts. But climate change is a global problem, and the United States’ sky-high emissions are generated all across the country — meaning no one state can do it alone.

The ruling will also likely further weaken the country’s standing in international climate negotiations, and some environmentalists fear the collateral damage could doom efforts to avert the worst of global warming.

The court decision stems from the Barack Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which would have capped power plant emissions, directing states to meet them mostly by switching to renewable sources such as wind and solar. But that plan was blocked by the Supreme Court and never went into effect.

Donald Trump’s administration repealed that rule and replaced it with a much weaker one that focused on efficiency and did not put limits on overall emissions. In January 2021, a federal appeals court dismissed the policy and rejected Trump’s repeal of Obama’s original plan.

Shortly after, conservative state attorneys general, including from West Virginia, challenged the appeals court ruling, arguing it gave the EPA too much power to control what energy sources states use. Only Congress has the authority to make rules of such major consequence, they argued. And the Supreme Court sided with them.

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The new ruling will curtail the Biden administration’s plans for tough new power emissions standards and limit the ability of federal agencies to create other rules.

Yet the court ruling did leave a path forward for the EPA, and on Thursday President Biden vowed to “take action.”

“My administration will continue using lawful executive authority, including the EPA’s legally upheld authorities, to keep our air clean, protect public health, and tackle the climate crisis,” the president said.

The administration still plans to issue tougher regulations on methane emissions, as well as stricter limits on other pollution from power plants.

Moreover, part of Biden’s stalled climate agenda could be revived in more modest form by Congress; a version that passed the House last year includes $300 billion in clean energy tax incentives for clean electricity and electric vehicles.

The key player is another West Virginia politician, Senator Joe Manchin, who blocked Biden’s initial effort but has since restarted talks with Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York., about prospects for a less ambitious version. Under Senate rules, that bill must be passed by Sept. 30, leaving Democrats limited time to reach an agreement that has eluded consensus for the past year.

Still, advocates say, the court ruling removes one of the EPA’s best tools to avert the worst of the climate crisis by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.

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The United States is responsible for 14 percent of the world’s emissions from fossil fuels, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, with nearly a third coming from power plants. Regulating those emissions has been at the center of a battle between Republican and Democratic legislators for years.

The decision comes as climate disasters mount around the world, with millions in Bangladesh and India devastated by deadly flooding, and persistent heat domes in Europe and parts of the United States.

“It’s just so heartbreaking,” said Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “Any notion of moral authority or global leadership feels further and further out of our grasp.”

Legal experts warned the ruling will extend well beyond regulation of carbon into other federal environmental regulations. Later this year, for instance, the court will hear a challenge to the Clean Water Act based on the same argument about agency overreach.

“This could have devastating consequences for environmental law,” said Patrick Parenteau of the Vermont Law School.

The ruling also raises broader questions about federal agencies’ ability to write regulations that have the force of law. John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who supported West Virginia’s position, welcomed the court’s dictate.

“Certain basic policies have to be made by Congress, by our elected representatives, and can’t be transferred off to agencies,” he said.

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Coal burning plants that continue to operate elsewhere will only worsen air quality in New England, which sometimes is called the “tailpipe of the nation” because wind currents carry pollutants here from across the country.

Those impacts won’t be felt equally; communities with the worst air quality tend to be lower income and more racially diverse. “It’s going to have massive impacts for environmental justice communities who are the ones impacted first and worst by our air quality,” said Staci Rubin of the Conservation Law Foundation in Massachusetts.

The stakes get higher in later years in New England as the ocean around it is warming significantly faster than the rest of the globe, according to recent studies. And while the seas will rise due to historic greenhouse gas pollution, how much they rise is dictated by how quickly emissions are cut.

Still, Massachusetts can to step into the breach and help push climate action forward. One key opportunity: Cooperation with other states.

New England states already join together, soliciting offshore wind projects that boost demand and help to lower prices. And the court’s ruling makes such partnerships all the more important, said Melissa Birchard, an attorney at the Acadia Center.

Jay Duffy, an attorney at Clean Air Task Force who represented environmental groups that challenged the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, believes the federal government could find ways to regulate emissions despite the decision.

“We need to remain hopeful and optimistic and use all the tools available to us,” he said.

Material from Globe wire services was used in this story.



Dharna Noor can be reached at dharna.noor@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor. Sabrina Shankman can be reached at sabrina.shankman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shankman.