The US Supreme Court on Thursday imposed limits on the federal government's authority to issue sweeping regulations to reduce carbon emissions from power plants in a ruling that will undermine President Joe Biden's plans to tackle climate change.
The court's 6-3 ruling restricted the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal- and gas-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act anti-pollution law. The Biden administration is currently working on new regulations.
“This is another devastating decision from the Court that aims to take our country backwards,” a spokesman for Mr Biden said in a statement.
“While the Court's decision risks damaging our ability to keep our air clean and combat climate change, President Biden will not relent in using the authorities that he has under law to protect public health and tackle the climate change crisis. Our lawyers will study the ruling carefully.”
The ruling is likely to have implications beyond the EPA as it raises new legal questions about any big decisions made by federal agencies.
US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said the Supreme Court's decision is a “public health disaster” that will be detrimental to Americans.
“A failure to regulate power plant emissions will lead to increases in asthma, lung cancer, and other diseases associated with poor air quality, and in many places, those impacts are likely to fall hardest in already heavily polluted neighbourhoods,” Mr Becerra said in a press release.
The Supreme Court's conservative majority has signalled continuing scepticism towards expansive federal regulatory authority.
The justices overturned a 2021 decision by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that had struck down former Republican president Donald Trump's Affordable Clean Energy rule.
That regulation, which the Biden administration has said it has no intention to retain, would impose limits on a Clean Air Act provision called Section 111, which provides the EPA with the authority to regulate emissions from existing power plants.
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The ruling was based on what is called the “major questions” legal doctrine that requires explicit congressional authorisation for action on issues of broad importance and societal impact.
The justices in January embraced that theory when it blocked the Biden administration's vaccine-or-test policy for larger businesses, a key element of its plan to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
The decision will constrain the EPA's ability to issue any regulations on power plants that push for an ambitious a national shift in energy policy towards renewable sources.
As such, the ruling will hamstring the Biden administration's ability to curb the power sector's emissions — representing about a quarter of US greenhouse gases.
A group of Republican-led US states, headed by major coal producer West Virginia, asked the justices to limit the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act. Other challengers included coal companies and coal-friendly industry groups.
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Coal is among the most greenhouse gas-intensive fuels.
Democrat-led states and major power companies including Consolidated Edison Inc, Exelon Corp and PG&E Corp sided with the Biden administration, as did the Edison Electric Institute, an investor-owned utility trade group.
The Biden administration wants the US power sector decarbonised by 2035. The US, behind only China in greenhouse gas emissions, is a pivotal player in efforts to combat climate change on a global basis.
The UN on February 28 — the same day as the Supreme Court's oral arguments in the case — released a 3,675-page report calling for global action to combat climate change.
The rule proposed by Mr Trump, a supporter of the coal industry who also questioned climate change science, was meant to supplant former Democratic president Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan mandating major reductions in carbon emissions from the power industry.
The Supreme Court blocked Clean Power Plan implementation in 2016 without ruling on its lawfulness.