Overnight Energy & Environment

Energy & Environment — Supreme Court rules in major climate case

The Supreme Court curbed what powers the Environmental Protection Agency has to regulate climate change. We’ll look at the ruling’s fallout and further implications. 

This is Overnight Energy & Environment, your source for the latest news focused on energy, the environment and beyond. For The Hill, we’re Rachel Frazin and Zack BudrykSubscribe here.

Court curbs EPA’s power to regulate power plants 

The Supreme Court on Thursday curbed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) ability to regulate climate change, setting limits on how the agency can deal with power plants.

  • In a 6-3 decision, the majority ruled that Congress did not authorize the EPA to induce a shift to cleaner energy sources using the approach that an Obama-era regulation sought to.
  • “Congress did not grant EPA…the authority to devise emissions caps based on the generation shifting approach the Agency took in the Clean Power Plan,” the majority wrote, referring to an Obama-era power plant regulation.
  • The ruling was split along ideological lines, with conservative justices opting to restrict the EPA’s power while the liberal justices disagreed.

The legal weeds: At issue in the case was language in the Clean Air Act that enables the EPA to regulate power plants using a “best system of emissions reduction” and what specifically that system can entail.

  • The majority opinion, penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, determined the Obama administration’s use of a system that involved moving away from carbon-intensive coal plants and toward natural gas and renewables did not qualify.
  • Roberts wrote that the plan, which involved regulating the power system as a whole instead of regulating individual plants, was an “unprecedented” view of the EPA’s authority that involved a “fundamental revision of the statute, changing it from [one sort of] scheme of . . . regulation” into an entirely different kind. 

In Thursday’s ruling, the court took a regulatory tool off the table for the Biden administration, which is currently working on its own power plant regulations. 

Legal experts recently told The Hill that preventing the EPA from using certain climate tools could result in regulations that allow more planet-warming emissions overall. 

The liberal justice disagreed: Justice Elena Kagan, writing a dissent for the three liberal justices on Thursday, said the majority was constraining the federal government’s ability to address carbon emissions during a time of crisis.

  • “The subject matter of the regulation here makes the Court’s intervention all the more troubling,” Kagan wrote.
  • “Whatever else this Court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change. And let’s say the obvious: The stakes here are high. Yet the Court today prevents congressionally authorized agency action to curb power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions.”

Read more about the decision here from Rachel and The Hill’s Harper Neidig.


President Biden on Thursday pledged to carry on with climate action despite the Supreme Court restricting how his administration can respond to global warming.

  • The president called the ruling curbing the EPA’s power “devastating” but said his administration would continue to look for ways to mitigate global warming.
  • “The Supreme Court’s ruling in West Virginia vs. EPA is another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards,” he said in a statement.
  • “While this decision risks damaging our nation’s ability to keep our air clean and combat climate change, I will not relent in using my lawful authorities to protect public health and tackle the climate crisis,” he added. 

What about Regan? EPA Administrator Michael Regan similarly said in a statement Thursday that he was “committed to using the full scope of EPA’s authorities to protect communities and reduce the pollution that is driving climate change.”

Climate hawks call for change:  

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called the ruling “catastrophic” and said it illustrated the need for an overhaul of the filibuster. “A filibuster carveout is not enough. We need to reform or do away with the whole thing, for the sake of the planet,” she tweeted shortly after the ruling’s release.
  • Meanwhile, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has staked out a position as among the most aggressive Democrats in the Senate on climate issues, tweeted Thursday “For our planet, for our rights, and for our very future, expand the Supreme Court.”
  • In a longer statement, Markey expanded on the call to add seats to the court, writing “Today’s ruling lets polluters turn back the clock on fifty years of reduced pollution and improved air quality all across the country. The result of this dangerous decision is an EPA that is undermined in its ability to protect the public from harmful pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.” 

Meanwhile, Republicans celebrated a limit to ‘overreaching’ regulations

  • “This is about maintaining the separation of powers, not climate change,” said West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R). “And we’re not done. My office will continue to fight for the rights of West Virginians when those in Washington try to go too far in asserting broad powers without the people’s support.”
  • “For years, Democrats have used overreaching Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations to side-step Congress and the American people to enact their extreme climate agenda. The Court’s decision confirms Congress, not the EPA, has the authority to create environmental policy,” Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement.

Read more on Biden’s response and how the ruling angered Democrats.

Climate ruling puts other regs at risk

The Supreme Court’s Thursday decision curtailing the EPA’s authority could hamper regulations far beyond climate

The conservative majority in the 6-3 ruling found that an Obama-era power plant rule was not permissible since it didn’t have “clear congressional authorization.”

But legal experts say this principle could be applied elsewhere, restricting the Biden administration from imposing other regulations in areas including health and consumer protections.

  • “If people think the federal government should be there to ensure that Americans have a basic level of health, safety and environmental protection, they should be very worried about these decisions,” said University of Michigan law professor Nina Mendelson.

The high court’s ruling invoked a legal philosophy called the “major questions doctrine,” which posits that regulations of substantial national significance need to have clear authorization from Congress.

This is not the first time the idea has popped up — it recently made an appearance in the court’s decision to block the Biden administration’s coronavirus vaccines-or-testing mandate for large employers.

But William Buzbee, a law professor at Georgetown, said the Supreme Court took a new approach with its ruling Thursday.

  • “It’s applying this doctrine more aggressively,” Buzbee said, pointing out that it was being used to curb the EPA’s authorities in an area where the agency actually has power and expertise. 
  • He also called the court’s move a “power grab” that will offer “artillery” for future arguments against regulations to address new problems.

Read more about the potential regulatory implications here.


  • California passes polarizing energy bill that could help rescue gas plants (The Los Angeles Times
  • Can Dual-Use Solar Panels Provide Power and Share Space With Crops? (The New York Times
  • OPEC, Allies Agree to Boost Oil Production Ahead of Biden’s Saudi Visit (The Wall Street Journal
  • Group drops $1.7M to bolster at-risk Dems on gas prices (E&E News

That’s it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill’s Energy & Environment page for the latest news and coverage. We’ll see you tomorrow.


Tags Biden Climate change climate regulations EPA Michael Regan power plants Supreme Court

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