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What the Supreme Court’s Ruling on the ‘Clean Air Act’ Means for Carbon Emissions

5 minute read

On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that will hamstring the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. The outcome of the case is a big deal for tackling climate change going forward, particularly because the Biden Administration had set ambitious goals for reducing emissions, including reaching 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035.

In a 6-3 vote, the conservative-majority court sided in favor of the plaintiffs who brought the West Virginia v. EPA case some seven years ago—primarily a group of Republican state attorneys general who believed that the federal agency was overstepping its authority after it issued a plan to curb power plant emissions. During those years, however, as case was moved through the justice system—rendering the EPA’s plan unenforceable—the power sector’s emissions declined anyway. The question now is whether emissions will continue to fall given that the energy industry has certainty that the federal government can’t impose future regulations.

The case has a convoluted history, but stems from a policy that former President Barack Obama unveiled back in 2015. Known as the Clean Power Plan, its goal was to reduce power sector emissions from 2005 levels by about a third by 2030. Before the policy could have its day in court, however, a new administration moved in, and, in 2019, then-President Donald Trump repealed the Clean Power Plan entirely. (Even though the policy never went into effect, the case against it continued; the Supreme Court was tasked to determine whether the EPA had broad powers to regulate emissions under the decades-old Clean Air Act.)

Two years later, Trump issued his own EPA policy directed only at coal-fired plants. More lawsuits were brought against that policy, this time from a coalition of predominantly Democratic states. A federal court struck it down, clearing the way for incoming President Joe Biden, who made clear that he would not revive the Clean Power Plan, and would instead craft a fresh plan of his own.

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As all that legal back-and-forth was dragging on, the power sector was gradually reducing emissions due to its shift from coal to natural gas and renewable sources. In 2021, carbon dioxide emissions were down 19% from 2015, the year that the Clean Power Plan was introduced, and were down 36% from their 2007 peak. Indeed, in part because of investor pressures and state-level environmental policies, the U.S. electric sector has now exceeded the goals set by the long-defunct Clean Power Plan a decade ahead of schedule (though the progress was uneven across the states, according to a report from the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog organization).

That momentum may seem great for Biden, but it may not be enough to match his carbon-free agenda. The Energy and Policy Institute noted in a late 2020 report that only a small number of utilities are on track to meeting Biden’s 2035 zero-carbon goals. If the administration cannot rely on EPA enforcement, it has to fall back on the other factors that have carried emissions reductions thus far, including pressure from investors who are disinclined to pursue fossil-fuel based projects, and environmentally friendly state-level policies.

“Though it’s harder today than it was yesterday, the U.S. still has paths forward to address climate change,” says David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute and author of the report. “For one, Congress could act. But I think the most likely action to accelerate utilities’ transition to clean energy will come from the states, since that’s what’s been happening to date.”

Still, as strong as those forces are right now, experts say they’re not going to propel the energy industry to zero emissions in just over a decade’s time. A September report from Wood Mackenzie estimated that the U.S. would reach 66% clean energy by 2035 due to “technological limitations, policy design, market structures, and even the United States’ political and constitutional foundations.”

“That would be a stretch to go to zero carbon by 2035,” says Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “It’s good to have aspirational goals, and all the way to zero by 2035 would be wonderful, but I don’t see it happening.”

The problem, he explains, is that the dramatic emissions drop from the last few years was largely due to a shift away from coal. Now the challenge will be moving away from natural gas while also building up the technology to support renewables—both of which are more difficult than decommissioning coal plants. “You can’t be complacent and assume that the downward slope will continue at the same angle,” he says. “There are encouraging signs, but we’re running out of time to deal with all of this.”

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