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Published June 13, 2024

EPA ruling puts climate change fight in local hands

The Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA leaves the future for environmental regulations uncertain.
Image by Photo by Alex Steil
The Supreme Court building on Nov. 21, 2019.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulatory power on June 30, local climate activists have continued to look for hope for a sustainable future.

In a 6-3 decision, the Court reversed a lower court’s ruling and stripped the EPA of its ability to independently place broad regulations limiting carbon emissions on the power industry. The EPA will still be allowed to enforce environmental regulations, but it can no longer do so unless Congress gives the agency specific authorization. 

Congress, which has historically been reluctant to approve environmental legislation, will have to approve any new federal restrictions on power plants’ carbon emissions.

Timothy Johnson is a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in judicial politics. Despite the Court’s ruling being confined to the EPA’s jurisdiction over power plants, Johnson said this decision’s underlying focus relates to the balances of power within the government. 

“There’s ample reason to believe that there will be lawsuits that the Court might ultimately take up that will continue to erode the EPA’s power,” Johnson said. “This is about executive agency power more generally, what’s next will probably be a series of lawsuits trying to cut out executive agency power in other areas.”

Greenhouse gasses, such as carbon, trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and contribute to climate change through global warming — in addition to polluting the air. In 2020, greenhouse gas emissions from power plants accounted for 31% of the U.S.’s total emissions, according to the EPA. 

Environmental regulation has largely been a stagnant issue in the United States for more than 50 years. In 1963, Congress passed the Clean Air Act (CAA), the nation’s first federal legislation aimed at controlling air pollution. 

Since then, the bill has been amended several times to further improve air quality and reduce pollution as more information regarding climate change was discovered. 

At the same time, this government entity, which holds the power to regulate environmental hazards, has faced many court battles in the decades after Congress passed the CAA. 

In a 1984 decision, the Supreme Court granted the EPA permission to reasonably interpret the CAA to create regulations without Congressional approval. However, due to the most recent ruling from the court, the EPA no longer has that power. 

In 2016, the Court halted the implementation of a President Barack Obama administration-era environmental plan that established guidelines for states to limit power plant carbon emissions. The Court ruled the EPA overstepped the law’s boundaries by regulating power plants’ emissions, which wasn’t explicitly written in the CAA. 

This 2016 ruling spurred further legal debates, leading to this most recent decision that limited the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the Court’s majority opinion, which argued that capping carbon dioxide emissions to an extent that forces a nationwide transition from coal usage may be a sensible “solution to the crisis of the day,” but it is “not plausible” that the EPA has the jurisdiction to adopt such actions.

“A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body,” Roberts wrote in the Court opinion.

Although significant carbon emissions affect the entire world, Gabriel Chan, a University professor and co-founder of the Center for Science, Technology and Environmental Policy, said he hopes the Supreme Court’s ruling inspires local groups to take reducing emissions into their own hands. 

“I think an optimistic scenario could be that cities and states see a lack of federal action and then ask what they can do with their own authority at the city level,” Chan said. “This decision could really push more political will at the local level to address climate [change].”

Many Minneapolis officials said climate action is a “top priority” and the city currently has agreements with Xcel Energy to close power plants, reduce emissions and invest in renewable energy. Additionally, Minneapolis is planning to finalize a new and more aggressive Climate Equity Plan in 2023 to update and replace its 2013 Climate Action Plan, while continuing to invest in smaller, less systemic projects, including limiting local car repair shop emissions and promoting community-led green zones. 

Kim Havey, director of sustainability for the City of Minneapolis, said the effects of climate change such as poor air quality and more extreme weather worsen other problems facing the city, including public safety, systemic racism and affordable housing. 

“Climate change is an existential threat that will amplify all these other things,” Havey said. “We’re really driven to be a very, very strong leader in climate action and improving public health. ”

While systemic changes are the most effective in reducing carbon emissions, smaller acts and personal choices also have an impact, Matt Grimley said. Grimley is an energy policy researcher and has spent the last 10 years advocating for environmental policy, most recently at the University. 

Grimley said powerful pollutant entities such as power plants are supported through the personal actions of individuals.

“There’s a capital implication of what you’re doing and what you’re trying to convince other people to do through your personal choices,” Grimley said. “Your effects are real.”

Grimley said he has seen more organizing and advocating for regulations and climate actions from University students in recent years, which he said can be an effective way for promoting change.  

“There’s literally no time left, we’re dealing with [climate change],” Grimley said. “We have to mitigate and adapt in the moment as best we can.”

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