WASHINGTON, Feb 28 (Reuters) – Conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices appeared skeptical on Monday about the federal government’s authority to enact sweeping regulations to cut carbon emissions from power plants in a case that could undermine President Joe Biden’s plans to fight climate change.
The court, whose 6-3 conservative majority expressed suspicion of the broad actions of federal agencies, weighed the power of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. greenhouse effect of existing coal and gas-fired power plants under the historic Clean Air Act.
Although some judges have questioned the power of the EPA in an abstract sense, it remains unclear how they will rule, as attorneys representing the EPA and power companies have pushed back against a decision that would bar the agency to issue regulations that would go “outside the fence” – that is, beyond the restrictions on individual plants.
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A possible decision restricting the authority of the EPA could hamper the administration’s ability to reduce emissions from the electricity sector – representing about a quarter of greenhouse gases in the United States. The United States, trailing China in greenhouse gas emissions, is a central player in global climate change efforts.
Conservative Judge Samuel Alito indicated that any broad assertion of authority sought by the EPA would be a “major issue” that, under case law, requires Congress to have expressly authorized it.
“You say the interpretation gives you the power to set industrial policy and energy policy and balance things like jobs, economic impact, potentially catastrophic effects of climate change as well as costs,” he said. Alito told US Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, representing Biden’s administration.
The Supreme Court is reviewing the 2021 decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit striking down former Republican President Donald Trump’s rule on affordable clean energy. This regulation would have placed limits on a provision of the Clean Air Act called Section 111 that gives the EPA the authority to regulate emissions from existing power plants.
Earlier today, the United Nations released a 3,675-page report calling for global action to tackle climate change. Outside the Supreme Court, a small group of protesters carried signs reading ‘Protect the Clean Air Act’.
The case was pursued by Republican-led states led by coal producer West Virginia. Other challengers include coal companies and coal-friendly industry groups. Coal is one of the most greenhouse gas intensive fuels.
Democratic-led states and major power companies including Consolidated Edison Inc (ED.N), Exelon Corp (EXC.O) and PG&E Corp (PCG.N) have sided with the Biden administration , as does the Edison Electric Institute, an investor-owned utility. trade group.
During the argument, their attorney, Beth Brinkmann, stressed the value of flexibility that would allow for some regulation “outside the dividing line,” including allowing emissions trading between plants.
This argument seemed to generate some interest among the justices, including Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas.
“I don’t know how you can draw such sharp distinctions,” Thomas told Yaakov Roth, a lawyer representing coal companies.
Liberal Judge Elena Kagan said “inside the fence” regulations can be just as onerous for coal plants as an industry-wide rule.
“Reform can be very small or catastrophic. There are technological fixes ‘inside the fence’ that could bankrupt the entire coal industry tomorrow, and a rule ‘outside of the fence “could be very small, or it could be very tall,” Kagan said.
The rule proposed by Trump, a supporter of the US coal industry who also questioned the science of climate change, was meant to supplant former Democratic President Barack Obama’s clean energy plan, which called for major emissions cuts of carbon from the electrical industry.
The Supreme Court blocked the implementation of the Clean Power Plan in 2016 without ruling on its legality.
Coal-aligned groups want judges to rule the Biden administration cannot take a sweeping approach to regulating carbon emissions under Section 111. Such a ruling would prevent the EPA from enforcing changes industry-wide, limiting it to actions targeting individual factories.
It would be a blow to the administration, which wants the U.S. electricity sector to be decarbonized by 2035. If the Biden administration loses the lawsuit, Congress would have to pass new legislation for the government to impose sweeping climate-related regulations – unlikely given congressional divisions.
Prelogar said the EPA will unveil new draft regulations by the end of the year, which would likely come after the Supreme Court’s ruling — expected by the end of June.
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Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Valérie Volcovici; Editing by Will Dunham
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