Supreme Court Upholds EPA’s Right to Regulate Power-Plant Emissions…with Minor Limitations

Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Coal-burning power plant in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, 2009 (AP Photo)

In a surprising multilayered ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the federal government’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, through U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with few restrictions.


Justice Antonin Scalia, who has not been known for his support of federal environmental regulations, said the EPA got “almost everything it wanted in this case.”


Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, added that the agency “sought to regulate sources it said were responsible for 86 percent of all the greenhouse gases emitted from stationary sources nationwide. Under our holdings, EPA will be able to regulate sources responsible for 83 percent of those emissions.”


Scalia was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in the 7-2 ruling.


EPA officials naturally were pleased with the court upholding their authority to cut back on air pollution. “The Supreme Court’s decision is a win for our efforts to reduce carbon pollution because it allows EPA, states and other permitting authorities to continue to require carbon pollution limits in permits for the largest pollution sources,” the agency said in a statement.


Another part of the decision more closely divided the justices. In a 5-4 sub-ruling, the justices tossed EPA’s main justification for developing the clear-air rules because it was deemed that officials had transcended their authority in attempting to go beyond language in the law.


 “An agency has no power to ‘tailor’ legislation to bureaucratic policy goals by rewriting unambiguous statutory terms,” Scalia wrote, while being joined by Roberts, Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr.


That decision represented a victory of sorts for some companies, according to the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). “If this rule had been allowed to stand, small-business owners such as ranchers, farmers, manufacturers, restaurant owners and others would have seen more paperwork, more oversight and fines,” NFIB said in a press release.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Justices, With Limits, Let E.P.A. Curb Power-Plant Gases (by Adam Liptak, New York Times)

Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency (SCOTUS Blog)

Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. Supreme Court) (pdf)

Supreme Court Rules EPA can Regulate Cross-State Pollution (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


Leave a comment