What SCOTUS' West Virginia v. EPA  Ruling Means for Climate Action -- and Why Our Fight is Far from Over

Yesterday the Supreme Court announced its decision in West Virginia v. EPA, dealing a harsh blow to the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to rein in carbon pollution and stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis. This holding is exactly what Sierra Club’s opponents in this case– a group of coal executives and far-right politicians–asked for when they launched this challenge. Make no mistake; the Court’s decision will embolden these extremists in their efforts to further undermine climate safeguards and other health and environmental protections in court. No one should be making it harder for our government to protect our families and communities from the worsening climate crisis, particularly as the window for taking action continues to narrow. Yet the Court’s ruling eliminates EPA’s most effective tool for reducing harmful greenhouse gas pollution  from existing power plants, precisely at a time when we need all hands on deck to combat climate change.

In a ruling that prioritizes the powerful instead of the people, the Court held that the Clean Air Act does not authorize EPA to base its carbon dioxide regulations for existing power plants on the opportunity to shift electricity generation away from fossil fuel-burning sources and toward new renewable resources like wind and solar, even though this is by far the most effective, efficient, and lowest-cost way of reducing climate pollution the power sector. 

Fortunately, the Court did not eliminate EPA’s general authority under the Clean Air Act to control greenhouse gas pollution; that means that the agency not only can, but must still issue emissions standards to reduce climate pollution from power plants (and, for that matter, from other sectors like transportation and oil and gas development). Nevertheless, the unavoidable truth is that the Court’s decision in West Virginia will make it significantly more difficult for EPA to develop meaningful and effective greenhouse gas standards for power plants, which are the largest stationary source of climate pollution in the country. Simply put, they’ve taken a critical climate-fighting tool off the table at the worst possible time. 

More ominously, the Court majority ruled against EPA authority by way of the newfangled “major questions doctrine,” a legal principle that prohibits federal agencies in general from tackling “major” policy questions without clear and unmistakable pre-authorization from Congress. This doctrine hinders the government’s ability to rely on broad, forward-looking laws to safeguard the public against new threats of  major economic or political significance, such as a viral pandemic or climate change. 

For corporations in the fossil fuel industry and elsewhere who profit by jeopardizing the health and safety of their workers and the public, this case is a clear green light to ramp up their legal attacks against government protections. We can be sure that deep-pocketed opponents of regulation will now go to court arguing that anything that inhibits their profits qualifies as a “major” action that falls outside the scope of what federal public servants can lawfully do to keep our communities safe and healthy. The West Virginia decision will also empower judges who are skeptical of agency authority to strike down agency actions that otherwise would have been understood as necessary and legitimate safeguards. The major questions doctrine threatens to  disrupt the balance of power between the three branches of government, and the Court majority’s invocation of it in West Virginia strikes a dark note indeed.

All hope is not lost, however. As of this writing, Congress continues to negotiate a budget reconciliation package that would grant hundreds of billions of dollars to renewable energy, environmental justice efforts, and other critical needs. Passing this legislation would go a huge way toward allowing our country to meet its international climate obligations and helping remedy the pollution problems that have plagued so many communities around the country, especially low-income populations and communities of color. It is therefore of the utmost importance that Congress reach a deal to finalize this legislation and provide the climate and public health benefits for which we have already waited far too long.

Furthermore, as noted above, EPA remains legally obligated to continue to push forward with carbon pollution standards for power plants, even while its options for limiting those emissions are now significantly narrowed. Other critical Clean Air Act protections – from methane safeguards for the oil and gas industry to controls on air toxics to federal greenhouse gas limits for cars and tracks – are all still in play. EPA must continue to fulfill its mission by adopting the most effective and impactful safeguards that are legally permitted. That includes swiftly finalizing greenhouse gas limits for oil and gas equipment and for vehicles that are even more stringent than the Biden Administration’s current proposals for those sectors

Meanwhile, this ruling has no impact on what states can do to curb greenhouse gas pollution. For groups like Sierra Club with a large grassroots presence in every part of the country, the fight for cleaner air and water continues. While the court’s decision means EPA cannot require “generation shifting” from fossil fuels to clean energy in its rulemaking, we know that this transition is already happening state by state, utility by utility, due to the incredible work of the Sierra Club and its partners across the country – and we won’t stop until all communities have access to 100% clean energy.  

The Supreme Court’s ruling cannot and will not stand in the way of our mission. Because of our volunteers, campaigners, organizers, and other leaders all over the country and the work they do every day, we are uniquely positioned to keep up the struggle for climate justice. Sierra Club can and will still work tirelessly to protect climate and communities for each and every one of us. Together, we have retired 357 coal plants. We have defeated the Atlantic Coast and Keystone XL pipelines. We have passed dozens of clean energy, climate, and environmental bills at every level of the government – and we’re just getting started.

However, we shouldn’t overlook the ways in which the majority on this Court chose to side with polluters and the powerful over the people in this case. As we know, the Supreme Court also issued a number of other high-profile–and devastating–decisions in recent weeks. This includes a ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade and extinguished the constitutional right to an abortion, flying in the face of broad-ranging public opinion, alongside other egregious decisions that will threaten the health and safety of people and communities across the country.  

Our efforts now will focus on working together with our partners across the country to respond to these setbacks and achieve the progress we need to protect every family and every community. First and foremost, that means demanding that Congress and President Biden take bold action on climate by enacting federal legislation. We know that the window to avoid the worst impacts of climate change is closing rapidly, and while the Court’s West Virginia decision is a step backward, it is by no means the end of the road. Sierra Club will continue to forge ahead, and we will never stop fighting to secure a just and livable future for all.