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Supreme Court ruling on EPA is latest blow to Biden’s climate agenda

The decision announced Thursday undermines yet another tool the administration had hoped to use to rapidly wean the U.S. off fossil fuels.
US is the second-largest contributor of Greenhouse emissions
Gas rises from a chimney at the Linden Cogeneration Plant in Linden, N.J., on April 22.Kena Betancur / VIEWpress via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — As he swept into office, President Joe Biden had sky-high ambitions for tackling climate change, calling it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to rebuild the U.S. economy around clean energy, modern infrastructure and electric vehicles.

“We’re not just going to tinker around the edges,” candidate Biden promised in 2020, vowing to “seize the opportunity, meet this moment in history.”

But the Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday curbing the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate power plant pollution is the latest major setback for those ambitious plans, undermining yet another tool the Biden administration had hoped to use to rapidly wean the U.S. off fossil fuels.

Although the White House signaled it will still take narrower action on power plants — the country’s second-largest source of greenhouse gases — the court’s ruling was another stinging reminder that Biden’s ability to deliver on top priorities is severely constrained. It remains unclear whether he can still make good on his pledge to halve U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury.

“Our fight against climate change must carry forward, and it will,” Biden said in responding to the ruling, calling it “another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling targeted a scheme the Obama administration proposed to shift electricity generation from fossil fuels like gas and coal to renewable sources like wind and solar. Under the plan, rather than set pollution limits for individual power plants, the federal government would have forced states to cut overall emissions through a cap-and-trade system that would have favored renewable sources.

The court ruled that Congress never authorized the EPA to force a nationwide shift from one energy source to another, but it left in place the agency’s ability to regulate individual polluting plants.

President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference Thursday at the NATO summit in Madrid.Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images

The Obama-era plan for a cap-and-trade scheme was never the centerpiece of Biden’s sweeping climate plans, which include eliminating all emissions from electricity by 2035.

Still, the blow to the EPA’s authority to force emission cuts compounded other major setbacks for Biden’s climate agenda, which once included plans for more than a trillion dollars in new climate spending and a new scheme — called a Clean Energy Standard — that would have paid utilities that shift to clean energy and fined those that don’t.

That carrot-and-stick scheme was dropped from bipartisan negotiations amid opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. And the massive new climate spending has yet to materialize following the collapse of talks over Biden’s Build Back Better spending proposal.

Although White House officials have held out dim hope that Democrats might still force through some scaled-back version of the proposal before the midterm elections, there have been no signs that a breakthrough is imminent, with time quickly running out. The energy and climate funds would be included in a broader economic package being discussed with Manchin that includes changes to taxes and prescription drug pricing.

In yet another blow to those efforts, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., late Thursday threatened that if Democrats move ahead with that bill, he will block another key Biden priority: a bipartisan bill focusing on manufacturing semiconductors that would boost competitiveness with China.

Jody Freeman, a climate change counselor in the Obama White House who runs Harvard Law School’s environmental and energy program, said: “Both Congress and the court have been quite disappointing for the administration. They’re still pushing forward with their approach to trying to do climate policy with all the agencies that have authority to impact it. But it’s hard slogging, for sure.”

In what has become a familiar routine, the ruling left the White House calling on Congress to act to accomplish what Biden alone can’t, even though Democrats lack enough votes on Capitol Hill to do so on most issues, like codifying the right to an abortion and passing far-reaching new gun laws. In recent days Biden has repeatedly said the only way for that to change is if voters elect more like-minded lawmakers in November.

To be sure, the Biden administration has had other climate successes in its first 18 months. On his first day, Biden re-entered the U.S. into the Paris global climate pact, and his administration has set unprecedented methane emissions rules for oil and gas production. The White House also secured some climate dollars in the bipartisan infrastructure law, including funds for electric vehicles, and it has set strict tailpipe standards for vehicles, targeting the country’s top source of heat-trapping emissions: transportation.

And despite the Supreme Court ruling, the Biden administration still intends to move forward with other emissions rules for power plants, although they’ll need to be tailored to the limits the court set on the EPA’s authority.

In April, the EPA released a white paper laying out the contours of a potential regulation for new power plants that burn natural gas. People familiar with the White House’s thinking pointed to the proposal Thursday as a likely next step. They said EPA and White House climate officials have already done the analyses, modeling and data-gathering to justify various potential rules.

They also indicated that the administration is looking at rules that would force cuts in other pollutants from power plants, like mercury and coal ash. The same steps power plants would take to cut those pollutants would also drive down carbon dioxide emissions, giving the administration another roundabout way to reduce greenhouse gases. EPA Administrator Michael Regan has suggested that those new rules for existing power plants could be debuted early next year.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s sweeping decision last week overturning Roe v. Wade, some environmentalists pointed to a silver lining Thursday: The high court, while limiting the EPA’s authority, didn’t gut it altogether. The court left in place its landmark ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA, which established that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

“There were concerns that this court would upend the entire regulatory apparatus of the federal court. They didn’t do that,” said former EPA Administrator Carol Browner, who served in the Obama administration and now chairs the League of Conservation Voters’ board. “They did limit EPA authority to regulate dangerous pollution from power plants, and that is troubling.”

Jason Rylander, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said the decision only increased the need for Biden to take other steps that don’t rely on EPA authority to meet his climate targets. He urged Biden to ban the use of federal waters and lands for gas and oil drilling and to use the Defense Production Act more aggressively to boost production of electric vehicles.

“This is by no means game over for climate action,” Rylander said. “There’s a whole lot of innings left to play.”