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Exploring how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

Ruling hobbles EPA on climate, but experts say agency still has power

A mountain of coal at Duke Energy's Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman.
David Boraks
A mountain of coal at Duke Energy's Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman.

When the U.S. Supreme Court last week limited the EPA's power to fight climate change, it brought an outcry from environmentalists. But experts say the decision was narrow and doesn't rule out further action.

Thejustices ruled 6-3 that Congress did not grant the EPA authority to set caps on emissions that would force energy producers to shift toward renewable energy.

“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day,’” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

But he said that has to come from Congress, not from the EPA.

The case concerns the Obama administration's 2015 Clean Power Plan, which was later repealed by President Trump. But the conservative-led court chose to review it anyway, to make a point about limits on executive power, said Stan Meiburg, a former EPA official now at Wake Forest University. Meiburg said the majority didn't entirely eliminate the EPA's authority.

"On its face, it is a fairly narrow ruling," Meiburg said. "They make it more difficult both for Congress, in terms of writing legislation, and for agencies in trying to actually implement legislation through implementing regulations. And so it's clearly made the job of addressing climate harder for agencies like EPA."

The court's decision came despite the fact that the EPA rules in question aren't even in effect.

The Clean Power Plan wanted to institute a "cap and trade" system for energy companies. That would have essentially penalized coal-fired plants and incentivized renewable energy. But the Clean Power Plan was quickly repealed by the Trump Administration and replaced with what David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council calls a "do-nothing rule."

"Our side—the blue states, the environmentalists and the power companies—challenged the do-nothing rule. And we won in the lower courts," Doniger said.

That might have brought back the Obama-era rules, Doniger said. But the EPA instead said it would issue new rules.

That didn't happen. Instead, red states and the coal industry appealed and West Virginia v. EPA made its way to the Supreme Court.

EPA administrator Michael Regan, who formerly was North Carolina's environmental secretary, called the ruling a setback, NPR reported.

"Over the past 18 months or so, [the EPA] has done a really good job of focusing on the full suite of climate pollutants," Regan said. "Power plants play a significant role in this larger picture and that's why the Supreme Court's ruling is disappointing because it's slowing down the momentum of not only curtailing climate change impacts but the globally competitive aspects that this country can seize to create jobs and grow economic opportunities."

Meiburg said the Biden administration's efforts to fight climate change are caught in a decades-old battle over federal power.

"It's just an interesting reflection of some of the divisions we have in the country that are centered around the use of federal authority," Meiburg said. "The fear on the one hand is that the federal government will be overreaching. And the fear on the other hand is that if we hobble the execution of the laws with too many constraints, big problems won't get solved, or will turn into even bigger problems."

Meanwhile, Duke Energy says the rule won't affect its carbon-reduction plans, which include closing all its coal-fired plants by 2035.

Scientists say time is growing short for cutting greenhouse gases that cause global warming. David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the ruling slows the U.S. fight against climate change at a time when it is already "way into overtime."

"It's on us. It's bad and it's gonna get worse, and we're losing time. And you know, the lost time is probably the most serious consequence of all this litigation," Doniger said.

The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change says that to avoid the worst effects of climate change, the planet must keep global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. (We're already at 1.1 degrees Celsius, according to the IPCC.)

The Biden administration wants to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and eliminate carbon emissions from energy generation by 2035. And North Carolina's 2021 energy reform lawcalls for cutting carbon emissions from energy plants by 70% from 2005 levels by 2030 and to net-zero carbon by 2050.

A version of this story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly Climate newsletter, which is published Thursdays. Subscribe at WFAE.org

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.