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Climate

The Supreme Court Is Slowly Breaking the EPA

Four rulings from the past week will weigh heavily on future climate regulation.

The Supreme Court.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Perhaps it’s futile to talk about any Supreme Court decision this term other than the justices’unprecedented ruling in the Trump case. The court’s decision to grant broad immunity to the president from criminal prosecution could reshape the modern presidency and empower Donald Trump during his potential — and increasingly likely — second term.

That ruling, too, will have profound practical implications for Americans who care about climate change. During his presidency, Trump flexed his power to slow the energy transition, bury scientific reports, and attack protesters. What will happen now that he is unbound?

But just as the court was expanding the president’s personal authority, it was confining and shrinking the power of any president to address climate change or regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

In a series of important rulings over the past week, the Supreme Court sharply limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon pollution. These rulings could resonate for years to come, no matter who wins the White House in November.

It did so by focusing on a corner of federal law that is often overlooked by the mass public: administrative law, the body of rules that govern how federal agencies constrain and regulate the private sector. Although Americans rarely interact with these rules, they affect the water we drink, air we breathe, and the food and drugs that we ingest.

Taken together, the four cases — Loper Bright Enterprises, Corner Post, Jarkesy,and Ohio v. EPA — are not as high-profile as the Supreme Court’s broad grant of immunity to Trump. But they could substantially weaken the EPA for decades to come, stymying its ability to write and enforce rules limiting carbon pollution. They could also slow down the permitting and construction of new clean energy infrastructure.

“All of these decisions — all four of them — inflate the role of the courts relative to the bureaucracy. This is part of a longstanding campaign by the conservative legal movement to bring the administrative state to judicial heel,” Nicholas Bagley, a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School, told me.

“Congress has not comprehensively addressed climate change but the agencies are trying to,” Emily Hammond, an environmental law professor at George Washington University, told me. “What these cases do, all together, is fairly comprehensively limit the ability of agencies to protect health and human safety and try to mitigate climate change.”

“It’s a shocking and scary grab of power by a court that is rapidly discarding principles that we’ve been able to rely on and expect for a long time,” she added.

In the first case, Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, the Supreme Court repealed a 40-year-old tenet of American regulatory law that said courts should generally defer to executive agencies such as the EPA when interpreting an ambiguous law. In the second, Corner Post v. Board of Governors, the court opened the door to lawsuits targeting federal regulations that have been on the books for years. Instead of allowing companies to challenge a new rule during the first six years after it was published, the court ruled that companies can challenge a new rule during the six years after the rule begins to affect them. That seemingly allows companies to challenge federal regulations long after they have been issued and treated as settled law.

In the EPA’s case, these two cases may have less influence than it may seem— not because the EPA won’t be subject to these precedents, but rather because the agency receives so little deference from the justices already.

The high court has asserted since 2022 that agencies cannot write new rules on questions of “vast economic and political significance” without clear authorization from Congress. This principle, called the “major questions doctrine,” was first invoked by the justices to overturn the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era rule that restricted greenhouse gas pollution from power plants in part by setting up an interstate carbon trading scheme. But the doctrine would seem to constrain almost any EPA attempt to regulate activities related to climate change, Carlson said. The EPA’s recent attempt to limit tailpipe pollution from cars — in addition to rules cutting carbon pollution from heavy-duty trucks — could run astray of the major questions doctrine.

“At least in my mind, in terms of what regulations will be challenged and how, the major questions doctrine poses the biggest threat to regulatory authority,” Carlson said.

The Corner Post ruling, which effectively extends the statute of limitations for suing over new regulations, may also mean less for the EPA than for other agencies. That’s because virtually every EPA climate protection is already battled over in court, and once a court has decided whether a given regulation is legal, everyone has to abide by that precedent.

“Most rules worth challenging will already have been challenged,” Bagley said.

The EPA may escape, too, from the worst of the Corner Post ruling, but only because its rules are almost always litigated within the first six years of their life anyway, Carlson told me. That means companies probably won’t need to sue after that, as they might want to do for other federal regulations.

Even if those cases have a muted effect on the EPA, however, the other two rulings — which have received less attention so far — could prove far more restrictive to the agency’s authority.

In one case, Securities and Exchange Commission v. Jarkesy, the court ruled 6-3 that the SEC cannot use an in-house tribunal of administrative judges to impose a civil penalty on a company. Instead, the agency must grant the company a full jury trial in federal court. But many other agencies, including the EPA, also use administrative judges and in-house trials to punish individuals or companies for breaking the law. Each year, the EPA imposes hundreds of millions of dollars in fines on companies that violate the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

Over the next few years, federal judges — and eventually the Supreme Court — will have to decide whether the Jarkesy ruling affects all executive agencies, including the EPA. If they decide it does, then it could slow down the agency’s efforts to penalize polluting companies by forcing virtually every decision into an already overworked court system.

But perhaps the most ominous ruling, Bagely said, is the one in a lawsuit concerning the EPA itself. On Thursday, in Ohio v. EPA,the court blocked the agency’s “good neighbor” rule, meant to limit how much air pollution upwind states can release into downwind states. The five-justice majority did so not only because it disagreed about the agency’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act, but also because the justices felt that the EPA had not properly addressed a few of the more than 1,100 comments about the rulemaking that it had received from the public. As such, they stayed the rule — temporarily blocking it from being enforced — and sent the case back down to a lower court.

That decision could change how everycourt views the rulemaking process, Bagley told me. Whenever the EPA drafts a new environmental rule, it receives thousands of public comments criticizing and praising different aspects of the proposal. Under a law called the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs how federal agencies deal with the public, it must respond to the substance of each of those comments before it can finalize and enforce the rule.

The EPA did respond to the comments at the center of the Ohio case, but Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority, decided the agency did not address a few specific concerns sufficiently.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett issued a dissent — joined by the court’s liberals — and castigated Gorsuch for focusing on “an alleged procedural error that likely had no impact” on the EPA’s actual anti-pollution plan.

“Given the number of companies included and the timelines for review, the court’s injunction leaves large swaths of upwind States free to keep contributing significantly to their downwind neighbors’ ozone problems for the next several years,” Barrett wrote.

Although the ruling may seem technical, it could create a major new obstacle for agencies to take almost any action, Bagley said. “The reason this worries me in the environmental context is that every major environmental action is going to come with 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 public comments,” he said. “What the court did here is flyspeck those comments,” meaning it looked for a tiny error and used it to justify pausing the entire rule. That’s despite the fact that the Clean Air Act, which the EPA was enforcing in the Ohio case, says that the courts must already meet an unusually high standard to intervene in an agency’s response to public comments.

“By flyspecking these comments … it increases the incentive to submit lots and lots of comments” in the hope that the EPA misses one of them. In those comments, “industry groups strew rakes all over your lawn in the hope that you’ll step on one — eventually an agency will.”

That has dire implications for the EPA’s ability to propose new climate rules, he said, but more broadly it affects any regulatory proceeding where the federal government has to reply to hundreds or thousands of public comments.

In recent years, for insurance, some Democrats and many clean energy developers have grown frustrated with the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which requires the government to study the environmental impact of any action that it takes. NEPA seems to particularly hamstring clean energy projects, such as transmission lines and geothermal wells. NEPA does not require that agencies minimize a project’s impact to the environment; only that the government study all potential impacts. But as part of the NEPA process, the government must respond to public comments about the proposed action.

The government can receive hundreds or thousands of comments about a given NEPA case.

That means virtually every NEPA process could now be subject to the same high level of scrutiny that the court imposed on the EPA in Ohio v. EPA. “This is a dramatic intensification of the stringency of judicial review across a number of domains,” Bagley said.

It is ironic, at best, that these sharp new limits on executive agencies’ ability to regulate carbon pollution came from the same Court that vastly expanded the president’s immunity under the law.

“This is a court that is hostile to environmental regulation,” Ann Carlson, a UCLA environmental law professor and the former acting head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 2022 to 2023, told me. “I don’t think there’s any other way to view it.”

Robinson Meyer profile image

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.

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