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Breakdown of the WV v. EPA Holding

Posted Jul 19, 2022, by Ethan Story

picture of a coal-fired power plant in WV
Coal-fired power plant, Willow Island, WV. Photo by FracTracker Alliance.

By a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court agreed with Republican-led states and coal companies that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to use generation-shifting as a “system of emission reduction” under the Clean Air Act.

Background

In the WV. v. EPA case, one primary regulation was at issue (which is currently not in effect). The regulation is known as the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era regulation that combats climate change by reducing carbon pollution from power plants. Essentially, the Clean Power Plan program would shift coal electric generation to cleaner methods of electricity generation such as natural gas plants or wind farms. The Clean Power Plan sets goals for each state to achieve by 2030. However, in 2016, the Supreme Court blocked the implementation of this regulation and the Trump administration repealed it. This means that the Clean Power Plan never took effect and does not exist.

The Clean Air Act empowers the EPA to set standards for air emissions and monitoring pollution. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to come up with the “best system for reducing emissions.” The EPA then looked at creating a plan to make generational shifts in how power plants operate in order to meet the ask given to them through Congress.

The role of the Supreme Court here is to interpret statutes and laws so they can determine if certain agencies have overstepped their authority. Previously there has been much deference given to agencies as they are known to be the experts in their field of operation. This rule of deference is also known as the Chevron rule. Chevron states that if a statute is ambiguous, then the Court will usually defer to the agency for interpretation. Many would argue that the text of the Clean Air Act is not ambiguous. The EPA is supposed to create numerical performance standards for certain kinds of pollution and then develop the “best system for reducing emissions.” One way to do this, in the eyes of the experts, is to implement a generational shifting plan. However, that is not how the Court saw it.

The Decision

First, the Biden administration argued that this was not a live controversy before the Court. It stated that it does not plan to reinstate the Clean Power Plan but instead to issue a new carbon emissions rule for power plants. Yet, Chief Justice Roberts explained in his opinion that the Court does hold the authority to hear this case, as the government’s decision to stop the conduct that is at issue does not end a case “unless it is absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.” Since it is not absolutely clear that the EPA will not promulgate a rule similar to the Clean Power plan in the future, the Court can weigh in.

As to the case’s merits, the majority held that the EPA’s effort to regulate greenhouse gasses by making industry-wide changes violated the “major-questions” doctrine. Applying the doctrine to this case, the Court said that if Congress wanted the EPA to have the power to make “decisions of vast economic and political significance,” it would clearly have stated that in the Clean Air Act. 

The Court held that the EPA was exercising “unprecedented power over American industry.” Chief Justice Roberts then reasoned that Congress did not intend to assign such power to the EPA because it rejected the very program introduced in the Clean Power Plan.

Applying This Decision to Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is situated a bit differently. In the Commonwealth, we have the Pennsylvania Air Pollution Control Act. Here, the state Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) holds power to reduce carbon pollution. That means this case does not impact the PA DEP’s authority. Lastly, our state Constitution contains its own environmental rights amendment. This section guarantees that the people of the Commonwealth have a fundamental right to “clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” Additionally, it requires that the state government conserve and maintain this benefit.

In Conclusion

This decision does not eliminate the EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gas pollution. The EPA retains the ability to restrict plant-specific carbon pollution emissions for fossil fuel power plants, regulate methane emissions from oil and gas equipment, and limit automobile emissions. This narrow decision affects one section of the Clean Air Act, which means that the EPA cannot set emission standards based on a generation-shifting approach. To do that, according to the Court, Congress must amend the Clean Air Act to make clear that EPA has such authority. Lastly, and many would say most importantly, this decision could have a rippling effect beyond the EPA. This newly adopted “major-questions” lens could be applied to any significant policymaking effort by federal agencies if challenged before the Supreme Court. 

Author

  • Ethan Story

    Ethan comes to CCJ with a J.D. and a Master of Environmental Law and Policy from Vermont Law School. While attending Vermont Law School, Ethan worked as a Research Associate with the Water and Justice Program. In this role, he worked with diverse stakeholders to help protect their access to reliable, clean water. Ethan also interned with the PA Department of Environmental Protection and Pennsylvania Environmental Council, where he worked on issues ranging from coal and oil and gas development to water treatment facilities. He has been published on the subjects of public trust, water rights, and other environmental issues. When he is not at work, he spends time with his family, running, and fly fishing one of PA’s many beautiful rivers.

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