Environmentalists in Vermont decried a new U.S. Supreme Court decision that will limit the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, though the ruling is not likely to touch Vermont’s companies and institutions.
In the United States, the energy sector makes up about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, and the ruling will hamstring the federal agency’s power to curb the sector’s contribution to climate change.
“We do not anticipate that the decision will have a significant impact on Vermont,” Julie Moore, secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources, said in an email on Thursday. “Specifically, the decision does not change states’ authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions or impact Vermont’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.”
The ruling follows continuous warnings from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that human health and environmental disasters will be much more likely if global emissions continue at their current pace.
The decision is part of a string of recent controversial rulings from the Supreme Court, such as the court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and a separate decision that limited states’ abilities to regulate who can carry a gun in public.
In the ruling Thursday morning on “West Virginia v. EPA,” the court struck down the Clean Power Plan, a piece of Obama-era federal regulation that had never been implemented and likely would not have been under the Biden administration.
Had it been adopted, the Clean Power Plan would have required coal-burning power plants across the country to transition to natural gas, which produces fewer emissions.
A 2016 Supreme Court decision stopped the plan, and later, the EPA under the Trump administration repealed and replaced it with a narrower law, which required power plants only to burn coal more efficiently. The Biden administration has said it does not plan to reinstate the Obama-era plan.
Thursday’s ruling says the Clean Air Act allows the EPA to regulate only individual power plants, rather than mandating transitions for the sector as a whole. It may have further implications for other types of government regulation.
Authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the ruling invoked the “major questions doctrine,” which says that any rule made by a federal agency that significantly impacts the economy must come from an explicit directive by Congress.
“This decision really adds to both the importance and the urgency of states taking a leading role in addressing climate,” Bradley Campell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, told VTDigger. Campbell said climate laws in Vermont, such as the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2020, are key to advancing climate progress under a conservative Supreme Court.
The decision “will really stymie EPA’s ability to fight the climate crisis,” he said. “It'll subject the public to more illness, shorter lives and greater poverty in an overheated climate.”
Jennifer Rushlow, director of the Environmental Law Center at Vermont Law School, said impacts on Vermont likely would be indirect. Still, she called the decision a “huge, depressing signal as we continue our search for a court or a state or federal law that can do something about this.”
“Just as a Vermonter who worries about climate change, it's a big day,” Rushlow said.
A number of politicians and local environmental groups issued statements Thursday denouncing the decision.
“Once again, the conservative Supreme Court has dealt a blow to the critical work of our government, the health of all Americans, and the safety of our planet for future generations,” U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said in a statement.
“Make no mistake: The Court hasn’t simply ruled against EPA. They’ve ruled in favor of corporate polluters over the public good. The Court has once again put Americans in danger. This is outrageous and disappointing. But it is also unsurprising,” Welch said.
The Vermont Natural Resources Council and Vermont League of Conservation Voters issued a joint statement calling the ruling “a deeply troubling decision that sides with coal companies and their allies.”
Ben Edgerly Walsh, climate and energy program director for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said the decision, along with others the court has recently issued, “underscores the need for action by the states, and by Congress, to protect Americans’ basic rights — including the right to a livable planet.”
The decision was split along ideological lines: Justices Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett voted in favor, while Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
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