How courts have new power to limit federal environmental policy

President Biden’s goal of making half of all new cars electric by 2030 and his broader approach to addressing the climate crisis have been challenged by recent Supreme Court rulings. These decisions have added obstacles to the government’s ability to regulate air and water pollution, as well as greenhouse gases. The rulings could empower conservative judges on lower courts to block more environmental regulations, not only under the current administration but also future ones.

One of the recent rulings, issued last week, put on hold the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) plan for cutting industrial air pollution that crosses state lines. Another overturned the Chevron doctrine, limiting the power of federal agencies, including the EPA, to regulate fundamental aspects of American life, including the environment. Previous court rulings in 2022 and 2023 targeted the EPA’s authority to curb greenhouse gases and protect wetlands from runoff.

These decisions represent a successful campaign by industry and conservative groups to weaken the power of the administrative state, particularly the EPA. The rulings could limit the Biden administration’s climate policy and may have long-term consequences, especially if a future president appoints more conservative judges.

The decision with the most immediate real-world impact could be the one that paused the EPA’s enforcement of limits on harmful air pollution that blows into downwind states from power plant smokestacks, pipelines, and factories. The EPA estimated that the rule, known as the “good neighbor plan,” would have significant health benefits for residents of downwind states.

The overturning of the Chevron doctrine could pose a major challenge for the EPA, as courts will no longer defer to the agency’s interpretation of ambiguous parts of environmental statutes. This could weaken the government’s capacity to address issues such as climate change, particularly in the absence of congressional action.

The next four years will be crucial, as the consequences of these rulings become clear and future legal challenges are likely to arise. If Biden is reelected, his major environmental rules could face increased vulnerability to legal challenges. If a future president is a Republican like Trump, they could appoint more conservative judges who could continue weakening environmental protections for decades.

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