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Supreme Court to weigh EPA authority to regulate greenhouse pollutants

Posted on 10 November 2021 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections by Lexi Smith

The Supreme Court agreed to hear a case, West Virginia v. EPA, challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants.

The case presents an opportunity for the Court to overturn key climate precedents and potentially change the relationship between federal agencies and Congress. The decision could have far-reaching consequences for federal climate policy and perhaps even for federal agencies more broadly.

How did we get here, how far might the Court go, and what consequences might the case have for climate change regulation and executive branch authority?

EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases: Massachusetts v. EPA

In a groundbreaking decision in 2007, the Supreme Court held 5-4 that EPA has authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. During the Bush administration, environmentalists petitioned the agency to issue a rule on the regulation of greenhouse gases. The Bush EPA denied the petition, and environmental groups, states, and local governments challenged that decision in court. The Supreme Court’s decision turned on whether greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide fall under the definition of “air pollutants,” which the Clean Air Act authorizes EPA to regulate.

The Court concluded that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are air pollutants under the Clean Air Act’s definition, and also noted that the EPA cannot refuse to regulate greenhouse gases for policy reasons outside the Clean Air Act itself, as the Bush administration had done. The Court ordered EPA to either issue a finding that greenhouse gases are dangerous to the public health and welfare, the first step toward regulation, or to give a reasoned explanation for why greenhouse gases do not meet the threshold of endangerment outlined in the Clean Air Act. The agency ultimately found that greenhouse gases are dangerous to the public health and welfare, which formed the foundation for EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gases.

That Supreme Court’s ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA was a 5-4 decision, and environmental advocates leading up to it were not at all certain that they would win the case. In fact, the case was controversial at the time because many environmentalists worried that it would result in a harmful adverse ruling. The four liberals on the Court in 2007, Justices Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Stevens, were joined by Justice Kennedy to form a majority. But Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Scalia, and Alito dissented.

Chief Justice Roberts’s dissent (joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito) argued that the states, local governments, and environmental groups challenging the EPA should not have been allowed to sue in the first place because they lacked standing: One requirement of standing is a “concrete and particularized” injury. Chief Justice Roberts argued that harms from climate change affect everyone, so the injury in question was not sufficiently individualized and personal to support a lawsuit.

Justice Scalia’s dissent (joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito) focused on the Clean Air Act and argued that the Act is meant to address conventional air pollutants that harm human health directly through exposure, such as inhalation. He maintained that the Act was not meant to address the broader issue of climate change, and that greenhouse gases therefore did not fall under the definition of “air pollutants.”

Of course, the Supreme Court’s composition has changed significantly since 2007. With a 6-3 conservative-liberal divide, the conservative dissenters’ objections to Massachusetts v. EPA may now represent the majority view.

The ‘worst case scenario’: What could West Virginia v. EPA bring?

There are reasons to expect that the Court will show restraint when it hears the upcoming challenge to EPA’s authority in the West Virginia v. EPA case. But first, let’s walk through the worst potential outcomes from the perspective of climate advocates.

As suggested above, the Court could overturn its decision in Massachusetts v. EPA and effectively take away EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. With such a ruling, EPA could no longer issue rules directly regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and past greenhouse gas rules issued under its Clean Air Act authority would be invalid.

Richard Lazarus, a Harvard Law School professor who recently wrote a book about Massachusetts v. EPAcalled the Court’s decision to hear West Virginia v. EPA “the equivalent of an earthquake around the country for those who care deeply about the climate issue.”

The consequences of the case could even reach far beyond climate regulation. The case presents an opportunity for the Court to revive the “nondelegation doctrine,” a mostly defunct principle that purported to limit Congress’s authority to delegate legislative power to executive branch agencies. The doctrine comes from Article I of the Constitution, which says that “[a]ll legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” The Supreme Court has not used the nondelegation doctrine to strike down agency action in more than 80 years.

Implications of enforcing nondelegation doctrine

The practical consequences of enforcing the nondelegation doctrine would debilitate the current system of executive branch rulemaking and regulation, subject to judicial review and congressional oversight. If Congress were to do all the rulemaking currently done by EPA, for instance, environmental regulation would become virtually impossible to enact. Congress in that case would have to make thousands of granular and technical decisions about environmental policy, even though we know it can barely pass major legislation as it is.

More broadly, nondelegation could mean that much of the work done by all federal agencies would have to be done instead by a clearly ill-equipped Congress. Even without current gridlock on Capitol Hill, the sheer volume of policy decisions Congress would have to make would be completely unworkable.

While this outcome sounds unlikely and illogical to those who support federal agency regulation, several of the current Justices at various times have expressed interest in weakening the administrative state and deregulating industry. For them, the nondelegation doctrine may be an attractive principle.

Notably, for instance, in a case called Gundy v. United States in 2019, four of the conservatives (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Gorsuch, Thomas, and Alito) showed a willingness to revisit the nondelegation doctrine. At that time, Justice Kennedy had retired, and Justice Kavanaugh had not yet been confirmed, so the case was 4-4. With Justices Kavanaugh and Barrett now on the court, there appears to be some chance that reviving the nondelegation doctrine would garner the support of five or even six Justices.

The petitioners – West Virginia and North American Coal Corporation – that brought the appeal in West Virginia v. EPA explicitly suggested that this case could be an opportunity for the Court to reconsider nondelegation: “Nothing in the statute [the Clean Air Act] approaches the clear language Congress must use to assign such vast policymaking authority – assuming, of course, it can delegate enormous powers like these in the first place.”

In short, the worst-case scenario from the perspective of climate action advocates is that the Supreme Court takes away the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases and also revives the nondelegation doctrine, which would strip most federal agencies of much of their regulatory power.

Reasons for a less sweeping outcome

Let’s now consider some reasons the Court may be unlikely to completely overturn Massachusetts v. EPA or fully embrace the nondelegation doctrine.

First, Chief Justice Roberts, and increasingly Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch, appear keenly mindful and protective of the Court’s reputation and legacy. They have tended to look out for the public perception of the Court and avoid decisions that would have provoked especially strong public backlash. Recent examples include upholding the Affordable Care Act and civil rights protections for the LGBT community.

These cautious impulses may be heightened by the looming threat of court reform, which could gain more momentum if a particularly controversial conservative decision were issued. Given the strong public backlash likely to result from a decision taking away EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases and/or reviving the nondelegation doctrine, the Court may proceed with caution.

The Court’s precedents in other fossil fuel cases provide another reason for a more limited approach. Massachusetts v. EPA created the basis for the Court to deny other lawsuits based on the harms fossil fuels cause.

In American Electric Power v. Connecticut, the Court heard a public nuisance challenge to greenhouse gas pollution. Public nuisances are acts, conditions, or conduct that interfere with the rights of the public generally. Connecticut’s nuisance claim rested on federal common law, a form of judge-made law. Judge-made law can be displaced by laws passed by Congress. The Court decided that because Congress had already granted EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, Congress had displaced judge-made law in this area. If the Court were to overturn Massachusetts v. EPA completely, public nuisance challenges could be brought against fossil fuel companies again, an outcome conservative Justices are likely to want to avoid.

Finally, even if EPA – and therefore the executive branch agencies as a whole – were to lose authority to regulate greenhouse gases directly under the Clean Air Act, it could still indirectly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by targeting co-pollutants that fall more squarely under Clean Air Act authority. For instance, greenhouse gas emissions are often accompanied by particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, volatile organic compounds, and air toxics. By regulating those co-pollutants, EPA can bring down greenhouse gas emissions without exercising any direct regulatory authority over them. Of course, if the Court fully embraces the nondelegation doctrine, EPA’s authority to regulate those other pollutants could also be jeopardized. But, as mentioned above, some Justices may stop short of such a decision in light of concerns about the Court’s legacy and risks of a backlash.

In short, while the Supreme Court’s decision to hear West Virginia v. EPA creates plenty of anxiety for climate advocates, there are also reasons to think that the Court will not fully overturn Massachusetts v. EPA. And even if the Court takes away EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, the agency may still have other avenues available for bringing down emissions. A broader embrace of the nondelegation doctrine would pose more sweeping problems for environmental regulation, but the Court’s recent cautious approach to hot-button issues suggests it is more likely to make only incremental changes to that doctrine.

Lexi Smith is a third-year student at Yale Law School. She studied environmental science and public policy as an undergraduate at Harvard, and she worked as an advisor to the Mayor of Boston on climate policy before enrolling in law school.

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Comments 1 to 4:

  1. Calling CO2 a "pollutant" is a stretch beyond all stretches. She uses the term, "other pollutants" and copollutants which clearly shows she believes CO2 belongs in the family of pollutants. The term "greenhouse gases" must clearly include 02 and N and Argon, etc, since the entire composition of the atmosphere is a sort of "balanced" greenhouse gas that provides a "heated" (greenhouse) atmosphere supporting a vast array of living organisms. Stunningly, we have to spend time and resources manipulating our environment rather than accepting what all other Earth organisms accept: All others accept the planet in which they find themselves.

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Although it has some very important and beneficial effects, CO2 meets the legal and encyclopedic definitions of a "pollutant", and human CO2 emissions pose a threat to public health and welfare. 

    The term “air pollutant” means any air pollution agent or combination of such agents, including any physical, chemical, biological, radioactive (including source material, special nuclear material, and byproduct material) substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air.”

    Legally in the USA, CO2 is thus an air pollutant which may be regulated if it may endangers public health or welfare.
    EPA Link
    EPA Archive Link

    O2, N and Argon are not greenhouse gases, lacking the triatomic/polyatomic structure needed to store the requisite vibrational energy that greenhouse gases do.

    Please take further discussion of CO2 being a pollutant or not to this thread:

  2. Further, a 3 to 5 centigrade increase in average surface temperature will probably extinctify much, if not most of the human race. This would be a good thing since "anthropogenic" is the sole cause of short to medium term climate change (Milankovich Cycles ignored). A mass human extinction event would "save" the planet because it would save the plant and animal organisms that seem to have helped make the Earth livable in the first place. When one looks back some 8,000 years, it's clear that only humans have fostered the slow changes that have brought the planet to its "boiling" point. Even until the dawn of the 19th Century, the Anthropogenesees harmed the planet very little. But now, reckless indifference has technology and courts will not save us.

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  3. Swampfox, anthropogenic climate change especially at the upper end of projections is modelled to increase the mortality rate especially in tropical countries. But anthropogenic climate change is unlikely to lead to half or all  of humanity going extinct. I dont know of any peer revewied science claiming things like that. Its hard to see how warming in cold countries would somehow lead to massive levels of human extinction in those countries. Its easy to see a problem in tropical countries. Impacts of climate change on agriculture globally are modelled to be very serious but fall far short of extinction level events. From what Ive read.

    However climate change is modelled to cause many plant and animal species to go extinct because they wont be able to adapt fast enough. So you better hope technology can save us from climate change because its looking like the only viable solution all things considered. You better rethink some of your ideas.

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  4. Perhaps we should consider a dialog that lays aside the greenhouse gas emissions for awhile and turn some attention to the stresses on the ecosystem from desertification, deforestation, eutrophication, habitat distruction, species extinction, unsustainable fresh water use, refuse disposal and various unhelpful land use conversions. Animal Agriculture was not a serious topic at COP26, but it should have been.

    My thanks to the monitor for clarifying the legal definition of greenhouse gases.

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