A U.S. Supreme Court ruling curbs the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s not likely to have a significant impact in Pennsylvania.
The high court’s 6-3 opinion issued Thursday says the EPA’s attempt to shift the country’s power plant make-up under the Obama-era Clean Power Plan went beyond the scope of what Congress intended with the Clean Air Act.
Some fossil fuel groups hailed the ruling as a correct step to limit administrative overreach, while environmental groups decried it as the opposite of what is needed to address climate change.
The court’s opinion was based on an idea known as the major questions doctrine, which holds that Congress must be specific in its laws if it wants federal agencies to make “decisions of vast economic and political significance.”
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Robert Routh, policy and regulatory attorney at Clean Air Council, called the court’s ruling and its basis troubling.
“It extends the Supreme Court’s trend of limiting agency power to address evolving problems,” he said.
Routh said it’s a narrow ruling, and doesn’t affect Pennsylvania law or the state Department of Environmental Protection’s authority. It applies to EPA and its authority under one section of the federal Clean Air Act.
John Dernbach, who directs the Environmental Law and Sustainability Center at Widener University Commonwealth Law School, said it’s “distressing” that the court took up the case when it didn’t have to, as a vehicle for limiting executive power.
The Clean Power Plan never went into effect. But the shift in electricity generation it aimed for largely happened as cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas replaced coal.
Dernbach said that while the ruling is a set-back for greenhouse gas regulation under the Clean Air Act, the EPA still has substantial authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
He said he doesn’t see the ruling affecting the Wolf Administration’s attempt to regulate carbon dioxide, because Pennsylvania has its own law governing air pollution that gives the state Department of Environmental Protection authority.
“And also because the exercise of its authority is consistent with the commonwealth’s duties to protect the public rights that are enshrined in the Environmental Rights Amendment,” Dernbach said.
But some of the arguments used by coal companies in challenging the EPA are similar to claims being made by coal and power plant companies in the commonwealth as they challenge the state’s plan to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
Alex Bomstein, director of litigation for Clean Air Council, said those types of “major questions” arguments could now be pushed more often.
“Whether the Pennsylvania courts decide to take those parties up on that and try to adopt federal law as Pennsylvania law is a question I don’t know the answer to and I think we’ll be watching,” Bomstein said.
The Wolf Administration said the ruling undercuts good-faith efforts to fight climate change and promised to push forward with the plan to join RGGI.
“This administration will continue to uphold our constitutional responsibility to conserve and maintain clean air and pure water for all people, including generations yet to come,” said Ramez Ziadeh, Acting DEP Secretary.
As an administrative action, Pennsylvania’s participation in RGGI hinges on the state’s next governor.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is term-limited and will leave office in January.
Republican nominee Doug Mastriano has promised to remove the state from the RGGI on his first day, if elected, while Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro has expressed doubts about RGGI.
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.