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Supreme Court curbs EPA’s power to limit greenhouse gas emissions

A group of red states and coal companies contested a federal appeals court decision that said the EPA could issue regulations on greenhouse gases.
EPA Proposes New Limits On Emissions From Coal-Fired Plants
A plume of exhaust extends from the Mitchell Power Station, a coal-fired power plant built along the Monongahela River, 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, in New Eagle, Pa., on Sept. 24, 2013.Jeff Swensen / Getty Images file
/ Source: NBC News

The Supreme Court on Thursday curbed the Environmental Protection Agency’s options for limiting greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, one of the most important environmental decisions in years.

In a setback for the Biden administration’s efforts for combating climate change, the court said the EPA does not have broad authority to shift the nation’s energy production away from coal-burning power plants toward cleaner sources, including solar and wind power. 

Future measures to address carbon dioxide pollution must be limited to restrictions imposed on specific coal-fired plants, instead of pushing utilities to shift from coal toward renewable energy sources, it said. 

The case came before the court in an unusual posture. The challengers — a group of red states and coal companies — were not fighting any specific rule. Instead, they were contesting a federal appeals court decision that said the EPA could issue the kind of regulations they opposed.

The legal battle began during the Obama administration, when the EPA issued a plan for reducing carbon dioxide pollution from power plants by allowing their operators to get credit for generating more power from lower-emitting sources. A coalition of states and coal companies sued, saying the Clean Air Act gave the government authority only to restrict pollution from specific power plants, not to require power companies to shift to different methods of generation.

After the Supreme Court blocked the enforcement of that rule, the EPA abandoned it and instead, under the Trump administration, proposed standards that would regulate only emissions from individual power plants. That relaxed restriction on greenhouse gases was then challenged by a different lineup of states and a coalition of environmental groups.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down the Trump administration’s revised rule. As a result, no EPA restriction currently applies to carbon pollution from existing power plants. But the appeals court ruling left the door open for the Biden administration to resurrect the EPA’s earlier approach, involving a shift to cleaner sources.

That possibility is what the coal companies and red states were asking the Supreme Court to prevent.  

The North American Coal Corp. told the court the that the EPA sought the power “to effectively dictate not only the technical details of how a coal plant operates, but also the big picture policy of how the nation generates its electricity.”

But several large public utilities, including Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Consolidated Edison, were on the Justice Department’s side. 

The ability of the EPA to regulate in this area “is critical to the power companies,” they said. “For years power companies have used emissions trading, generation shifting, and other measures to reduce emissions while keeping the lights on at reasonable cost.”

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