In one of the final decisions in its recently completed term, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a crippling blow to the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate the greenhouse gases that drive global warming.
Virginia is fortunate that state statutes continue to advance the cause of a cleaner, more sustainable environment, but that progress is under threat. While Congress must act in light of the court’s ruling, holding the line in Richmond is vital to protect Hampton Roads and other communities increasingly vulnerable to climate change.
In a 6-3 decision issued June 30, the Supreme Court concluded that the EPA overstepped its authority in regulating emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act. At specific issue was the Clean Power Plan, issued by President Barack Obama and formalized in 2015, that established limits for plant emissions to help the United States meet its commitments under the Paris climate accord.
The court concluded that the sweeping regulations imposed by the Clean Power Plan exceeded the authority of the executive branch, which oversees the EPA. The majority ruled that without explicit congressional authority, the agency acted outside its scope of authority.
The implications of that decision are enormous. Not only does it hamstring the ability of the EPA to reduce the harmful pollutants that drive climate change, it calls into question a host of federal actions, since agencies routinely interpret laws to determine their rule-making authority.
There is, of course, an obvious antidote to the court’s poison pill: Congress can specifically grant the EPA authority to regulate greenhouse emissions, thereby allowing the agency to reduce pollutants and protect the environment. Political polarization and institutional dysfunction make that unlikely, but it is essentially what the court wants: for legislators to legislate.
Federal action on greenhouse gases is critical for a number of reasons, but primarily because emissions do not respect state boundaries. Pollution in Tennessee affects Virginia, for example, so Washington has a central role to play in establishing and enforcing a national regulatory framework.
But the court’s ruling also puts the onus on state legislatures to act — and Virginia has done so.
In 2020, the General Assembly passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which sets the commonwealth on pace to eliminate carbon emissions by 2050. With the support of the two largest electric utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company, the law will move Virginia to renewable and nuclear energy in less than 30 years.
The legislature also passed the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act in 2020, a law with substantial benefits to Hampton Roads. It authorized Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a market-based carbon trading program that encourages utilities to transition toward renewable power.
The 11 RGGI states divide revenue from the sale of carbon credits and the commonwealth’s participation has netted $378 million so far. Virginia’s share is split between the Community Flood Preparedness Fund, which pays for resilience and flood protection, and low-income energy efficiency programs administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development.
The Youngkin administration and its partners in the legislature want to undo that work, proposing to withdraw Virginia from RGGI and reverse the important progress made in recent years.
Hampton Roads is expected to see at least 1 foot of sea-level rise by 2050, though the reality could be worse. Coupled with land subsidence, the threat to homes, businesses, military installations and critical infrastructure is real and imperils the future of the region.
Ideally, the world would be united in its efforts to curb harmful emissions to avoid a climate catastrophe. The United States should be a leader in this battle and can be if Congress finds the will to act by giving the EPA authority to impose effective regulations.
At the very least, however, Virginia must protect its laws and programs that put the commonwealth on the path to a cleaner, more sustainable future. The future of this region and communities throughout Virginia depend on it.