US supreme court deals blow to Biden administration’s plans to tackle climate change

White House condemns ‘devastating decision that will take the country backwards’

In a blow to efforts by the Biden administration to tackle climate change, the US supreme court has limited the ability of the country’s Environmental Protection Agency to regulate emissions from power plants.

The court said Congress rather than solely administrative agencies had to be involved in making decisions of such major significance.

Dissenting liberal judges on the court said the conservative majority had stripped the EPA of “the power to respond to the most pressing environmental challenge of our time”. The White House described the court ruling as “another devastating decision from the court that aims to take our country backwards”.

“While the court’s decision risks damaging our ability to keep our air clean and combat climate change, President [Joe] Biden will not relent in using the authorities that he has under law to protect public health and tackle the climate change crisis. Our lawyers will study the ruling carefully, and we will find ways to move forward under federal law”, it said.

Separately, the court ruled that the Biden administration can end a policy introduced by his predecessor Donald Trump to make migrants at the southern border remain in Mexico while awaiting adjudication on their application for asylum.

In the environmental case on Thursday, chief justice John Roberts wrote in the 6-3 majority decision that “capping carbon-dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible solution to the crisis of the day”.

“But it is not plausible that Congress gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.”

In the case before the court, West Virginia v Environmental Protection Agency, the court was asked whether under existing clean-air legislation the agency was permitted to issue sweeping regulations across the power sector. More broadly, the court was asked to address whether Congress must “speak with particular clarity” when it authorised executive agencies to address major political and economic questions.

The reining in of the power of executive agencies has long been an ambition of conservative lawyers and activists.

Critics of the ruling argued that given the polarisation in Congress there was unlikely to be agreement on environmental and other regulations to apply, and even if there was it would take an inordinate amount of time given the number of administrative agencies in place. Critics feared the net effect would be there would be no or few regulations put in place.

The implications of the ruling could extend well beyond environmental policy and further signal that the conservative majority on the court is deeply sceptical of the power of administrative agencies to deal with major issues. The court in earlier rulings had determined, for example, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was not authorised to impose a moratorium on evictions and that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration could not tell large employers to have their workers vaccinated against Covid-19 or undergo frequent testing.

Earlier on Thursday, Mr Biden condemned what he called the “outrageous behaviour” of the supreme court in deciding last week to overturn the constitutional right to abortion established by the Roe v Wade ruling of 1973. He suggested he would back changing rules in the US Senate to modify what is known as the filibuster – which essentially requires a super-majority to make many decisions – to allow Democrats to legislate for abortion rights.

“We have to codify Roe v Wade in the law, and the way to do that is to make sure the Congress votes to do that,” Mr Biden said. “And if the filibuster gets in the way, it’s like voting rights, we provide an exception for this, or an exception to the filibuster for this action.”

In the immigration decision on Thursday, the supreme court rejected a challenge to the Biden administration’s efforts to end an immigration programme from the Trump era which forced asylum seekers arriving at the southwestern border to await approval in Mexico.

After taking office Mr Biden sought to end the programme. However, officials in Texas and Missouri took legal action and lower courts reinstated it.

Chief justice Roberts said federal immigration law gave the executive discretion in that it may return asylum seekers to Mexico, but was not required to do so.

The issue is now likely to go back to lower courts.

Separately, in a ceremony on Thursday Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was set to make history by becoming the first black woman to join the US supreme court. She was due to be sworn in just minutes after Justice Stephen Breyer officially retired. Her appointment will not change the balance on the court, which has a solid conservative majority.

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent