Supreme Court Case Could “Gut” the EPA

New Supreme Court Case Could

( – On February 28, 2022, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a controversial environmental case with a timeline that stretches back to former President Barack Obama’s time in the White House. In West Virginia v. EPA, plaintiffs argue that the Clean Air Act of 1970 (42 U.S.C. §7401 et seq.) renders Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) an unconstitutional overstep. While the CPP was never officially activated, a ruling in favor of the complainants could effectively hamstring the EPA and a long list of other agencies.

Case History

Analysts refer to West Virginia v. EPA as a “monster case” with good reason. Its notoriously complex history dates all the way back to 2015, when then-President Obama first released the Clean Power Plan. The CPP enacted new pollution standards for power plants and sought to ambitiously reduce carbon gas emissions by 32% in just a few short years while also empowering the EPA to set rules under the Clean Air Act.

Opposition to the CPP came swiftly and poured in from virtually all sides. Some 24 states filed lawsuits against the EPA over the matter. Each accused the government of illegally attempting to reorganize the energy grid and effectively sabotaging coal-based industries.

States eventually took the matter in front of the Supreme Court. In February of 2016, it ruled in favor of the complainants, instantly blocking the CPP. However, it refused to provide any justification, effectively zombifying the matter in a perpetual state of limbo. It continued to crawl through the courts.

Affordable Clean Air Act

When former President Trump stepped into office, he immediately took on the issue of the longstanding CPP debate by drafting a new but similar agenda called the Affordable Clean Energy Rule (ACE). While it contained many of the same suggestions and guidelines, including those granting the EPA new powers, it softened the approach in an attempt to address concerns about overreach.

While ACE was officially enacted in 2019, the DC Circuit court eventually overturned it in 2021, citing concerns about the way it and the Obama-era CPP essentially wrote the EPA a “blank check” to enact changes as they saw fit. They labeled it a misinterpretation of the rules and accused the EPA of acting unlawfully in a landmark 185-page opinion. 

Recent Updates

Prior decisions from the Supreme and Circuit Courts did little to permanently resolve the issue of overreach within the EPA. At one point in the ongoing saga against the CPP and ACE, a total of 38 individual lawsuits stood before the courts. The matter continued to crawl slowly further without much publicity for a time.

Plaintiffs Westmoreland Mining Holdings, North American Coal Corp, the state of North Dakota, and Basin Electric Power Cooperative consolidated their efforts in early February 2022. Each was still asking the Supreme Court to once again intervene.

Some analysts questioned whether the Supreme Court should even be hearing arguments in West Virginia v. EPA at this point in time. After all, the CPP was never officially implemented, and ACE had been struck down some time ago. They argued that the Supreme Court lacked standing to even hear such arguments in the first place since the source of the original complaint was no longer relevant. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court did agree to review the matter, which led it to schedule a hearing on February 28.

Potential Outcomes

While only the ACE has officially been struck down, both it and the CCP effectively remain in limbo. Thus, the impact of any outcome is unlikely to affect any kind of change to either of these programs. But, that doesn’t mean a vote in favor of the plaintiffs won’t have any effect at all. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

If the courts were to determine that the EPA engaged in overreach, or that the EPA lacked standing to enforce rules under the Clean Air Act of 1970, it would devastate the government’s ability to fight climate change. The US’ chief environmental regulator might even be stripped of the right to enact environmental policies, rendering it inert.

But there’s another potential wide-reaching impact at play, too. If the Supreme Court determines that Congress no longer has the right to grant such powers to the EPA, the ruling could have a trickle-down effect. It might also result in virtually every other agency facing similar limitations. Some consider that a positive step towards limiting government overreach, while others predict it will eventually hamstring the government to the point of disaster.

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