Monday's Supreme Court debate focused on whether the Environmental Protection Agency has the power to limit greenhouse gases from power plants. This was one of the most important cases in a term that is already loaded with major issues.
After two hours of oral argument it was unclear if a coalition of red state and coal industry would be able to get the restriction on EPA authority they desired.
The issue is the government’s authority to "the single biggest industrial source of climate change in our country and one the largest sources carbon dioxide pollution worldwide," Vickie Patton, General Counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund.
West Virginia was the leading energy-producing state and coal company. They asked the court to rule that EPA doesn't have broad authority over shifting the nation's electricity production away coal-burning power stations and towards cleaner sources like solar power.
Lindsay See, West Virginia's solicitor-general, stated that this kind of public policy cannot be established by Congress and not by any federal agency. According to her, the EPA seeks to "reform the nation's oil sector by choosing which resources should be available and setting standards to do so."
Some conservative justices appeared to be open to this argument. Justice Brett Kavanaugh stated that Congress allowed cap-and trade agreements across the industry to reduce acid rain, but not for carbon dioxide. He said that the EPA attempted to implement it using an outdated and ill-fitting regulation.
West Virginia also asked the court to declare what the EPA wanted to do was a major question beyond its delegated powers, as the court ruled that the FDA couldn't regulate cigarettes and that the Centers for Disease Control couldn't stop evictions due to Covid.
However, at least one conservative on the court was skeptical about this view. "Here, we're thinking of EPA regulating greenhouse gases. Justice Amy Coney Barrett stated that there is a match between regulation and agency's wheelhouse.
Another contention made by the challengers was that the EPA wanted to do something so broad that it required congressional authorization. However, the court's liberal members rejected this argument.
"This is not a kind of regulate-to-the-end-of-the-world kind of thing," said Justice Elena Kagan. It clearly states that there are other constraints that must be considered in order to impose reasonable limits.
Because the states and the coal companies weren't challenging any particular rule currently in place, the case was brought before the court in an unusual position. They were instead contesting a Federal Appeals Court ruling that the EPA could issue regulations they oppose.
Elizabeth Prelogar is the Justice Department's solicitor-general. She said that the challengers didn't have anything concrete to contest. She said, "They are not harmed because of the status quo." She said that they sought to limit the authority of the EPA in an upcoming rulemaking, which the federal courts are not permitted to do.
Seven years ago, the legal battle began when the Obama-era EPA issued a plan to reduce carbon dioxide pollution by allowing power plant operators credit for generating more electricity from low-emitting sources like natural gas, solar and wind energy. The Clean Air Act only gave the government the authority to limit pollution from certain power plants and not to require that power companies switch to other methods of generation.
The Supreme Court had blocked enforcement of the rule. The EPA abandoned it, and instead, the Trump administration proposed standards to regulate emissions from power plants. A coalition of environmental groups and states challenged the relaxed restriction on greenhouse gas emissions.
On Donald Trump's last day as President, the U.S Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit revoked his revised rule. The EPA does not currently apply to existing power plants that pollute carbon. The appeals court ruling allowed the Biden administration to resurrect EPA's earlier approach that involved a shift towards cleaner sources.
This is exactly what coal companies and red state asked the Supreme Court for.
Jacob Roth, representing North American Coal Corporation, stated before the court that the EPA wants the power to "effectively dictate not just the technical details of how a plant operates but also the overall policy of how the nation generates electricity."
However, several large utilities such as Consolidated Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. were on the Justice Department’s side.
Beth Brinkmann, a lawyer representing industry, stated that the EPA's ability to regulate in this field is "critical for the power companies." She said that power companies have used generation shifting, emissions trading and other methods to reduce their emissions for years.
Numerous interest and business groups have also shown interest in the case. Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Tesla are just a few of the companies that backed the Biden administration. They stated that both regulatory and corporate action were necessary to stop the worst effects of climate change in a friend-of-the court brief.
The case will be decided by the court in early July.