U.S. Rep. Scott Peters. Photo by Chris Stone
Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, took aim at the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday, calling the court’s recent decisions reflective of a “now obvious political agenda.”
In the past, he said in a statement, the court has been “regarded as a fair and impartial foundation of our democracy.” Decisions such as Thursday’s in the West Virginia v. EPA case and the June 24 ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, he worries “may forever tarnish” the court’s legacy.
“I never imagined that the highest court in the land could itself bring about greater mistrust in our government and our democracy, but this is where we have come,” Peters said.
The former environmental attorney issued the statement in response to the court’s decision to impose limits on the federal government’s authority to issue sweeping regulations to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.
The court’s 6-3 ruling constrained the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal- and gas-fired power plants under the landmark Clean Air Act anti-pollution law.
The ruling is seen to undermine President Joe Biden’s plans to tackle climate change and could constrain various agencies on other issues. His administration is currently working on new regulations.
The court’s six conservatives were in the majority in the decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, with the three liberals dissenting.
Biden called the ruling “another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards.”
“While this decision risks damaging our nation’s ability to keep our air clean and combat climate change, I will not relent in using my lawful authorities to protect public health and tackle the climate crisis,” Biden said in a statement.
The Democratic president said he directed his legal team to work with the Justice Department and affected agencies to review the ruling and find ways under federal law to protect against pollution including emissions that cause climate change.
Peters called the decision “a devastating blow to our efforts and goals to fight climate change.”
“The decision that an agency as important as the EPA cannot fully use its authority to limit carbon emissions for power plants will make it even harder to achieve already difficult but critical emission reductions,” he said, adding that he will “recommit to pass climate rescue legislation in Congress.”
Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, whose district includes parts of North County, said in a statement that the ruling “upended decades of precedent.”
“This ruling is unconscionable, and by gutting enforcement of the Clean Air Act, the health of our planet and people will suffer severely as a result,” Levin said. “The vast majority of Americans support action to combat the climate crisis and protect our air and water.”
The ruling is likely to have implications beyond the EPA as it raises new legal questions about any big decisions made by federal agencies.
The court’s conservative majority has signaled skepticism toward expansive federal regulatory authority. Conservative legal activists have long advocated reducing agency power in what has been called a “war on the administrative state.”
The justices overturned a 2021 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to strike down Republican former President Donald Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy rule.
Thursday’s ruling was based on what is called the “major questions” legal doctrine that requires explicit congressional authorization for action on issues of broad importance and societal impact.
The justices in January appeared to embrace 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 court’s invocation of this doctrine sends a signal that the justices will be a major obstacle to federal agencies seeking to implement broad policies of national importance.
The decision will constrain the EPA’s ability to issue any regulations on power plants that push for an ambitious national shift in energy policy toward renewable sources. As such, it will hamstring the administration’s ability to curb the power sector’s emissions, about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gases.
A group of Republican-led U.S. states led by major coal producer West Virginia asked the justices to limit the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. Other challengers included coal companies and coal-friendly industry groups.
Coal is among the most greenhouse gas-intensive fuels.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey called the ruling a “huge victory against federal overreach and the excesses of the administrative state.”
Roberts wrote that while capping carbon emissions at a level that would force a nationwide energy transition might be sensible “it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.”
Writing in dissent, liberal Justice Elena Kagan noted that the court chose to hobble Biden’s climate agenda before his administration even issued its rule.
“The limits the majority now puts on EPA’s authority fly in the face of the statute Congress wrote,” Kagan said, adding that the court “deprives EPA of the power needed – and the power granted – to curb the emission of greenhouse gases.”
Kagan said the court has a clear goal: “Prevent agencies from doing important work, even though that is what Congress directed.”
Democratic-led states and major power companies including Consolidated Edison, Exelon Corp. and PG&E Corp. sided with Biden’s administration, as did the Edison Electric Institute, an investor-owned utility trade group.
Thursday’s decision came on the final day of rulings for the court’s current nine-month term.
– Reuters and staff reports