The U.S. Supreme Court (aka, SCOTUS) has been very busy recently. Among many of their controversial decisions in the past two weeks comes a ruling that puts a damper on the regulatory power of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The court’s decision has global and national effects, but also local impacts for you and your family. Here’s what happened, and what you should know:
The case, titled West Virginia vs. EPA, was based on the EPA’s 2015 Clean Power Rule, which was proposed to aid our country’s movement toward energy production that results in less harmful emissions than the use of coal. While multiple steps in the Clean Power Rule were developed to reduce emissions using the best methods possible, the Rule received so much pushback from States and private parties that it was replaced by the Affordable Clean Energy rule (ACE). The ACE is considered modest compared to the use of “generational shifting” as a method of emission reduction proposed in the Clean Power Rule; most entities posed issues with basing the rule on this “generational shifting”, a term defined by a shift from higher to lower emitting electricity production.
Naturally, the ACE was still challenged and eventually made its way to be heard by SCOTUS in the form of West Virginia vs. EPA. Many details were picked apart throughout the duration of the case, but one stands out from the rest, as it has repercussions for climate change and human health. The spotlight fell on the SCOTUS decision that the EPA does not have authority to put a cap on power plant emissions based on generational shifting. The bottom line of the ruling: the EPA is not granted the power to apply carbon emission caps to the energy grid without clear authorization from Congress.
This ruling comes at a time when we are already struggling to stop global temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C (aka 35°F) to avoid catastrophic results. While the EPA was established to be a science-minded agency with the expertise of hundreds of researchers in our country, the new ruling forces their evidence-based decisions to be approved of by those whose expertise lie in politics, not in science. Now that the EPA has been left without the allowance to do their job, the results could be devastating for local communities.
A lack of a federal emissions cap on energy facilities implies a largely unregulated release of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. Moving forward, we as scientists expect power-based CO2 emissions will rise in States that rely on a financial benefit from the energy sector. We know from research that global and national CO2 emission increases will further the increase of temperatures, natural disasters, and threaten the survivability of all species. Locally, CO2 emissions lead to what we know as smog; coal towns can expect an increase in emissions will decrease visibility and expose us to the inhalation of harmful air pollution.
The EPA has not been given permission to decrease national emissions on their own, but we hope Congress will heed direction by the scientific agency moving forward. For now, we continue to keep our eyes on State emission regulations in expectation they put the health of their residents above the size of their own wallets.
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Reports <https://www.ipcc.ch/reports/>