On June 30, 2022, in a 6-3 decision, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. writing for the majority, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in West Virginia v. EPA limiting the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants. The Court’s decision could have significant implications for other executive branch agencies attempting to issue regulations that implicate “major questions.”
The case was centered around the Trump Administration’s Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which repealed the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan and replaced it with more limited regulations of carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. In a 2021 decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (“D.C. Circuit”) struck down the Trump Administration’s Affordable Clean Energy Rule. The Supreme Court majority invoked the “major questions doctrine,” which requires executive agencies to point to “clear congressional authorization” to regulate major political and economic questions. Specifically, the question before the justices was whether the Clean Air Act allowed the EPA to issue transformative regulations across the power sector.
The Supreme Court held that the EPA was not acting within the authority granted to it by Congress when adopting emissions reductions. The majority stated that under the major questions doctrine, an agency must point to “clear congressional authorization” when seeking to regulate “a significant portion of the American economy.” However, all the EPA can offer, wrote Roberts, was its “authority to establish emissions caps at a level reflecting ‘the application of the best system of emission reduction’” and “[s]uch a vague statutory grant is not close to the sort of clear authorization required by  precedent.” The Court concluded that while “[c]apping 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’ . . . it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.” “A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body.” Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the judgment of the D.C. Circuit.
Justice Neil Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Samuel Alito joined. In his concurrence, Justice Gorsuch joined the majority’s opinion and wrote separately to elaborate on the major questions doctrine.
Writing for the dissent, Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, wrote that the Court had substituted its own ideas about policymaking for that of Congress. Justice Kagan stated that, “[w]hatever else this Court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change” and yet “[t]he Court appoints itself—instead of Congress or the expert agency—the decision-maker on climate policy.” Justice Kagan remarked that she could not “think of many things more frightening.”
The Supreme Court’s opinion is available here.