The Supreme Court curbed EPA’s power to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. What comes next?

Power station

July 19, 2022 – In late June, the Supreme Court issued a ruling stating that the Environmental Protection Agency cannot put state-level caps on carbon emissions under the 1970 Clean Air Act. Such authority would, in effect, steer states away from coal and toward other types of power sources that emit less carbon. The Court said that, instead, the authority to decide how power is created in the U.S. must come from Congress. Here, experts from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health discuss the implications of the ruling. 

Reaction to the decision

Charlotte Roscoe, research fellow in the lab of Francine Laden, professor of environmental epidemiology: This is a regressive decision that will limit EPA’s power to control emissions and mitigate climate change, which is a huge setback for public health. Climate change impacts all people’s health and wellbeing, and disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable, including children, older adults, people living on low incomes, and people in the U.S. who identify as Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and Hispanic or Latino. We are already seeing the health and economic impacts of wildfires, droughts, extreme heat, and intense storms here in the U.S.

Francesca Dominici, Clarence James Gamble Professor of Biostatistics, Population, and Data Science, and co-director of the Harvard Data Science Initiative: This is a bad decision completely inconsistent with the law, prior decisions from the Supreme Court, and even the conservative justices’ own judicial philosophies.

Aaron Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard Chan School (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE): We expected the SCOTUS to restrict EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and of the possibilities, this decision was arguably the least restrictive. The restriction on EPA wasn’t based upon how much our health would benefit from the rule. It was based on the Court’s view of whether the Clean Air Act allowed for EPA to make a rule like the 2015 Clean Power Plan, under which state caps were established for carbon emissions from power plants.

Effect of the ruling

Dominici: The Supreme Court took away an important tool that the EPA could have used to clean up the air we breathe. The decision will almost certainly slow down our country’s transition to clean power, and it’ll leave our air dirtier for at least the next five or ten years, maybe longer. If Congress doesn’t pass a new law to undo this decision, the dirtier air will make us sicker—and many Americans will die earlier as a result. More broadly, the Supreme Court just made it harder for us to tackle the most pressing environmental crisis of our lives—climate change.

Roscoe: Limiting the powers of the EPA to decarbonize energy production is anticipated to result in economic gains for polluting energy companies including those invested in coal-powered plants.

How climate policy can progress

Roscoe: All is not lost. While the SCOTUS decision will curtail the authority of the EPA under one provision of the Clean Air Act, it doesn’t curtail all EPA authority and it doesn’t preclude federal, state, or local government action on climate change. Health, as well as healthcare costs, need to be adequately considered in all levels of government decision-making on air pollution and climate change. There are huge health benefits that can be achieved through timely action.

Dominici: Congress gave the EPA many tools to clean up our air. For now, the Supreme Court has only taken away one of them. So it’s important to remember that the EPA remains a powerful force to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, clean up our air, and limit the health effects of climate change. It’s also clear that Congress needs to pass new laws empowering the government to be more aggressive in this fight. 

Bernstein: Since the court said that EPA can’t make a rule like the Clean Power Plan, we need to redouble work to advance policy solutions in our cities, states, and Congress. Many states, including Massachusetts, have enacted climate change bills that are beacons for where we need to go and our success can be a model that can lead us all forward.

Reason for hope

Roscoe: The transition to cleaner energy is becoming more cost effective and emission reductions are currently happening without aggressive regulation in the U.S.

Dominici: Climate change will hit the bottom line of nearly every industry, including the health care industry. And in many ways, the private sector is already acting. Pollution from power plans has dropped precipitously in recent years. So while the Supreme Court just set us back a bit, there’s a lot of good reason for optimism as we move forward.

*Dominici’s responses were prepared with the assistance of Scott Delaney, research associate in the Department of Environmental Health

Karen Feldscher

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