The U.S. Supreme Court late last month limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants nationwide, delivering a blow to the agency’s ability to fight climate change.
Environmental advocates say the decision doesn’t affect Minnesota’s transition to renewable energy and the state’s ability to curtail its own emissions, but the loss of important federal efforts highlights the need for more urgent action on the state level.
The case revolves around President Barack Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan, which aimed to give states their own goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants by shifting to renewable sources of energy like wind and solar. The plan was repealed by President Donald Trump when he took office in 2017, but not before several coal companies and states attorneys general challenged the proposed regulations in court.
In a 6-3 decision with a majority opinion penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court held that the Clean Air Act doesn’t give the EPA the authority to require power plants to shift to renewable energy, and Congress must either make that call or explicitly direct the agency to do so.
“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day,’” the opinion reads.
But, Roberts wrote, “a decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body.”
The ruling affirms the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and the agency has other tools it can use to regulate emissions, said Joanne Spalding, chief climate council for the Sierra Club’s environmental law program. But it takes away the federal agency’s most powerful and cost-effective tool to regulate the nation’s largest stationary sources of greenhouse gas pollution, she said.
“The problem is that is the most effective system to reduce emissions, so it really eviscerated EPA authority,” Spalding said. “Now it will need to rely on less effective and more expensive systems of emissions reductions.”
“We know that the impacts of climate change are happening now, and to push things off for decades is not going to make the situation any better,” said Jesse Berman, an assistant professor in environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota. “So while I do think that we will be shifting in this direction, without these regulatory tools it does become a slower, more tedious process.”
Berman said fossil fuel power plants have been switching to cleaner energy sources on their own in recent years, as the decline in prices of wind turbines and solar panels have made renewable energy more feasible in some cases and more members of the public are demanding access to clean energy. But with more instances of flooding events, wildfires, heat waves and drought due to climate change, the Supreme Court decision pushes the U.S. further away from meeting its climate change goals, which the country was not on track to achieve even before the ruling.
The other impact, he said, is that giving more discretion to legislative bodies would negate the rigorous process based on science that an agency like the EPA uses to develop regulations, and lead to less informed decisions that may be motivated by politics.
“Many (congresspersons) and their aides are not necessarily representative of the scientists who are really experts in this field,” Berman said. “When you instead take this and put it in front of a group that doesn’t have that expertise, that may not be as thorough in reviewing the science, you have concerns that decisions will no longer be made based on scientific principle and will instead be made based upon political decisions.”
How the ruling impacts Minnesota
Kevin Reuther, chief legal officer for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said the Supreme Court decision doesn’t affect how Minnesota can reduce its own emissions because the state has already outpaced the federal standards. Gov. Tim Walz announced plans to be 100 percent carbon free by 2040. Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power plan to retire their coal-fired power plants by 2030 and 2035, respectively.
But Reuther said the state is still “failing miserably” in meeting its climate goals, and the ruling underscores the state’s responsibility to take more urgent action.
“This is a significant regulatory tool that was taken off the table for EPA, and that really means that Minnesota and other states have to step up,” Reuther said.
Past Minnesota Legislatures enacted goals to significantly reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent by 2015, 30 percent by 2025, and 80 percent by 2050, from 2005 levels. While further ahead in transitioning to cleaner energy than other states, Minnesota failed to reach its own 2015 goal and isn’t on pace to meet its 2025 and 2050 goals.
That prompted the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to look for other ways to reduce carbon emissions, leading it to the transportation sector, which accounts for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the state – the largest share of any other source. What followed was a “Clean Cars” plan from Walz and the agency adopting California vehicle emissions standards that are the most stringent nationwide.
Republicans in the Legislature objected to the standards, citing familiar concerns that the agency overstepped its bounds and the authority to adopt the rules rests with lawmakers. An administrative law judge upheld the MPCA’s efforts, ruling that existing statutes already grant the state agency the authority to adopt the rules.
The MPCA is still reviewing the ruling’s potential impacts on Minnesota, according to spokesman Darin Broton.
Reuther said plans have been developed to reach the state’s climate goals, but it is now “just a matter of action.” As the climate continues to warm, further waiting to codify those plans into law – which would make them more enforceable – will only worsen the problem, Broton said.
“Our children and grandchildren are not going to inherit the same climate that we’ve been experiencing — it’s simply true that it’s changing and it’s not changing for the better,” Broton said. “We need to take all the plans that we have in place and create policy around them, and actually start to reduce our emissions consistent with the goals that we have in statute.”