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US Supreme Court restricts environment agency’s power to regulate carbon emissions

BMJ 2022; 378 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o1642 (Published 04 July 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;378:o1642
  1. Elisabeth Mahase
  1. The BMJ

The US Supreme Court has restricted the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) power to regulate carbon emissions that cause climate change, in a move that experts have said could damage human health.1

The court voted 6-3 in favour of West Virginia, which brought the case forward on behalf of 19 other states as well as some of the country’s biggest coal companies.2 The judges concluded that the 1970 Clean Air Act—which gave the EPA the power to write and enforce air pollution rules but does not specifically mention carbon emissions—does not give the agency the authority to set limits on carbon emissions.

Instead, the court ruled that it is up to Congress to decide whether such rules should be put in place.

Delivering the opinion of the court on 30 June, chief justice John Roberts said, “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 EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme in Section 111(d) [of the Clean Air Act]. A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body.”

In her dissenting opinion, however, associate justice Elena Kagen said the reason Congress makes broad delegations, like in the Clean Air Act, is so agencies like the EPA can “respond, appropriately and commensurately, to new and big problems.” She said the decision by the court has now overridden that legislative choice and deprived the EPA of the power it was granted to curb the emission of greenhouse gases.

Unnecessary damage to human health

The decision has raised concerns over the impact this move could have on human health. American Medical Association president Jack Resneck said, “Regulating and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is critical for combating the climate crisis and its major health implications, impacting the respiratory, cardiovascular, and immune systems of the US population, with minority populations disproportionately impacted.”

He continued, “As physicians and leaders in medicine, we recognise the urgency of supporting environmental sustainability efforts to help halt global climate change and the devastating health harms that it is sure to bring. Despite this ruling, we will continue to do our part to protect public health and improve health outcomes for our patients across the nation.”

Catherine Kling, faculty director at Cornell University’s Center for Sustainability, warned that the ruling could set a dangerous precedent. She said, “Weakening the power of the EPA to regulate and enforce dangerous air pollutants that were not mentioned explicitly in the Clean Air Act raises concerns for other pollutants. As our scientific understanding of the effect of water and air pollution advances, the ruling suggests that unless legislation can promptly be passed in each instance, unnecessary and avoidable human health and ecological damages will occur.”

Devastating decision

The decision came less than a week after the Supreme Court decided to overturn Roe v Wade—the landmark 1973 decision to legalise abortion in the US—in a move that many have labelled a public health crisis.3

In a statement, President Joe Biden called this latest EPA ruling “another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards.” He has directed his legal team, the Department of Justice, and other affected agencies to review the decision and “find ways that we can, under federal law, continue protecting Americans from harmful pollution, including pollution that causes climate change.”

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