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The Supreme Court may issue a ruling that could hurt Biden's climate change plans

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court still has some big opinions to issue this term on abortion, guns and the environment. In West Virginia v. the Environmental Protection Agency, the justices are weighing how much power the federal agency has to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. And depending on how broad that decision is, it could shape environmental policy and even administrative power in general.

NPR's Laura Benshoff is here with us now to explain more. Hey, Laura.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

CHANG: OK, so first, just catch us up here. Who brought this case and why?

BENSHOFF: Well, lawsuits about the right way to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants have just been bouncing around the courts for several years. But last year, a D.C. federal court handed down a decision that left the door open to a policy like one proposed during the Obama administration. And that would have put state-level caps on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. That plan was put on hold years ago. It's not coming back. But more than a dozen GOP attorneys general, as well as some coal companies, appealed that decision. And the Supreme Court, which hears a very small number of cases, took it up. Jeffrey Holmstead, a lobbyist and former EPA administrator during the Bush years, told me that tells you something about what the court plans to do.

JEFFREY HOLMSTEAD: This new authority to have this expansive regulatory power - I think the Supreme Court thinks that's constitutionally illegitimate.

CHANG: OK, so just to be clear here, this ruling, it won't start or end any policy, but it will say something about the power that the EPA and maybe other parts of the government will have in the future?

BENSHOFF: That's right.

CHANG: OK, so what do we think this ruling could look like? I mean, is it possible that legal precedent is going to be overturned in some way?

BENSHOFF: That's really the big question. You know, on the narrow end, the court could just rule on what the EPA can do at power plants to regulate carbon emissions. But on the broader end, they could say something expansive about the nature of agency power in general. And in oral arguments, the justices focused a lot on something called the major questions doctrine. And this is the idea that if an agency makes a policy that has vast political or economic repercussions, Congress better have expressly given the agency power to do that. And it's a way for this court, which has majority conservative judges, to tweak a longstanding precedent that has traditionally given agencies, given federal administrations a lot of latitude to interpret the laws that give them authority. You know, what is the major question? That's never been defined. But, you know, petitioners here are arguing that this is one, that the EPA cannot make a policy that would reshape the entire power generation field, and that it can only tell power plants, hey, you have to lower your emissions.

On the other side, the federal government is saying that setting industry-wide standards is within its power. And surprisingly or interestingly, some lawyers for big utility companies agree with the federal government. They like the flexibility that these broad standards give them to meet their regulatory requirements versus being told, hey, you have to go install this piece of equipment at your plant.

CHANG: Right. OK, so depending on what happens, how major could the ripple effect be?

BENSHOFF: You know, if it's narrow, just limiting how the EPA regulates greenhouse gases at power plants, that could hurt the Biden administration's goal of zeroing out carbon pollution from power plants. But Matt Davis, a former EPA health scientist now at the League of Conservation Voters, says there are some workarounds to getting there that rely on other parts of the law.

MATT DAVIS: I think it will be challenging for the Supreme Court to shut all the doors, all of the possible avenues. I think they will make it more challenging.

BENSHOFF: If it's a broader decision, that could send shockwaves through many agencies and reframe the relationship between Congress and the executive branch, basically.

CHANG: That is NPR's Laura Benshoff. Thank you, Laura.

BENSHOFF: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.