Democrats in Washington saw their climate action options dwindle Thursday as the Supreme Court diminished the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants.
By a 6-3 vote, the conservative majority ruled the agency does not possess broad authority to regulate pollution from electric utilities.
The court’s three liberals disagreed, writing in a dissent that the majority had denuded the agency of “the power to respond to the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.”
As industry groups and Republican lawmakers cheered the ruling and Democrats said it will burn critical time to lower domestic emissions, the decision placed pressure on Congress to address climate change as a now-hobbled EPA prepares a new climate proposal.
In a fiery statement that gave the court a new title —“MAGA Court,” a reference to the Make America Great Again slogan of former President Donald Trump, who named three of the six conservative justices to the bench — Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., decried the ruling along with two recent high court decisions to weaken gun-safety restrictions and overturn federal abortion protection.
“First on gun safety, then on abortion, and now on the environment — this MAGA, regressive, extremist Supreme Court is intent on setting America back decades, if not centuries,” Schumer said. “Today’s decision adds to a number of dangerously outrageous decisions that have rightly tarnished the public’s confidence in the court — every Republican who had a role in putting these six justices on the bench are complicit in the devastating impacts of its extremist decisions.”
'Overridden lawmakers' will'
Energy and Commerce Chairman Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., said the court had misread the Clean Air Act and overridden lawmakers’ will. “The Supreme Court’s blatant dismissal of the will of Congress is an alarming display of hubris, the consequences of which will be felt far beyond this case,” Pallone said.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., also took umbrage at the ruling, saying the justices were playing the roles of lawmakers, not interpreters of the law, referencing the dissent in the case by Justice Elena Kagan.
“As Justice Kagan points out in her dissent, ‘ the Court appoints itself — instead of Congress or the expert agency — the decision-maker on climate policy,” Hoyer said. “That is not how our system of checks and balances works,” he said, adding that the Senate should “act on legislation to address the existential threat posed by the climate crisis, including House-passed measures to lower Americans’ energy costs and secure a clean energy future.”
Hoyer did not identify specific bills and Democrats broadly did not pinpoint steps they plan to pursue to lower emissions as the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit an all-time record in May of 421 parts per million.
The ruling does not bar the EPA from regulating power sector emissions, but it narrows what options the agency can pursue.
EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in April the agency would issue its new proposal to regulate emissions from the power sector “as soon as the Supreme Court rules” on the case.
On Thursday Regan said the agency remains "committed to using the full scope" of its "authorities to protect communities and reduce the pollution that is driving climate change."
Republican lawmakers celebrated a long-sought legal victory.
“Today, the Supreme Court gave power back to the people,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, echoed that states-rights notion, saying she would scrutinize the agency and steps to lower emissions from power plants, referencing an Obama-era proposal called the Clean Power Plan.
Though it’s the target of much Republican ire, that proposal, which was the core issue of the case decided Thursday, never went into effect. The Supreme Court stayed it in 2016 after Capito’s home state sued.
“I will continue to conduct oversight of EPA to make sure the agency does not attempt to devastate the people and industries of West Virginia as it did with the Clean Power Plan ever again,” she said.
Other Republicans in Congress, such as Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., the top Republican on Energy and Commerce, applauded the news because the ruling may cast a sweeping legacy by requiring federal agencies to get explicit permission from Congress before they act.
“When Congress acts to address major policy questions affecting Americans and their livelihoods, it says so clearly, explicitly,” Rodgers said.