California and other blue states are likely to press ahead even harder in the fight against global warming, despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision Thursday that dealt a major blow to the Biden administration’s climate change efforts.
Siding with West Virginia and other big coal-producing states, the court voted 6-3 to limit the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to overhaul the nation’s electricity supplies in favor of wind power and other renewable sources.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that while capping carbon emissions might make sense, Congress didn’t empower the EPA to impose such a policy. “A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself,” he wrote.
The decision has little legal impact in California, where coal has all but disappeared as a source of electricity generation and the Legislature has already charted an energy future that relies exclusively on green energy.
Still, California Democrats railed against the decision — and warned that California will feel its effects because of pollution seeping in from elsewhere.
“Air pollution doesn’t stop at state borders, it requires a national, whole-of-government approach,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in a statement.
“The idea that the U.S. Supreme Court took away one of the most significant and historically powerful tools to address the ravages of climate change is incomprehensible,” Gov. Gavin Newsom, standing amid trees blackened by wildfire, said in a video message his staff posted on social media.
The court’s ruling was the third in the past eight days that stoked California Democratic leaders’ anger. Last week, a majority of justices made it easier to carry guns in public. Last Friday, it ended the constitutional right to an abortion.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, called the EPA decision another blow from the “radical Republican Party and their henchmen on the Supreme Court.”
“In just two weeks, the court has acted to erase reproductive health freedom, flood our public places with more deadly weapons and, now, to let our planet burn,” Pelosi said.
Democrats have vowed to intensify efforts to keep the state a fortress against limits on abortion, looser gun laws and weakened climate policy.
Newsom touted California’s own record on fighting climate change and vowed the state would continue to chart its own course – and called on like-minded states to do the same.
“We’ve got to double down, quadruple down, here in California and in blue states all across America,” the Democratic governor said.
Supreme Court and California
In 2007 the Supreme Court came to a very different conclusion about greenhouse gas regulations.
In a case brought by Massachusetts, California and 10 other states frustrated with President George W. Bush’s administration, the court ruled that the EPA had no choice but to start regulating carbon pollution.
Justice Elana Kagan cited that 2007 case Thursday, arguing in a dissenting opinion that Congress had already put the EPA in charge of regulating all forms of air pollution. “Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases fit that description,” she wrote.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta and his allies in other states argued in a January brief with the Supreme Court that the EPA should have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
In any event, it’s been California that’s often taken the lead on climate change — frequently butting heads with federal officials when Republicans have been in the White House.
After then-Gov. Gray Davis signed an early climate change law in 2002, requiring automakers to restrict carbon emissions from vehicle tailpipes, the EPA under President Bush refused to grant California legal authority to enforce the law.
After Bush left office, and Barack Obama became president, the state struck a landmark 2009 agreement with the federal government that forced the car industry to ratchet down carbon emissions while improving gas mileage.
That deal was derailed by Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, who revoked California’s authority to set rules on greenhouse gasses and weakened the regulations established in 2009.
When President Joe Biden took office last year, he essentially scuttled the Trump plan and started work on reviving the tougher auto emissions rules. He also restored California’s authority to regulate carbon pollution.
That appears to remain intact.
“Before (Thursday’s) ruling came out, there was some concern that the court’s decision could threaten California’s waiver under the Clean Air Act, which lets California restrict greenhouse gas emissions from cars,” said Cara Horowitz, an expert on climate law at UCLA. “Because this case does not constrain EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases from motor vehicles, at least not directly, I think there’s good reason to think that California’s auto emissions standards for climate pollution survive. That’s a big centerpiece of California’s climate program.”
Deborah Ann Sivas, director of Stanford’s Climate Law Clinic, said California “is doing its own thing, for the most part, way ahead of the EPA. I don’t think there’s any real fallout for California (from Thursday’s ruling).”
Power plant emissions
When it comes to power plant emissions, California is a leader as well.
California got one-tenth of 1% of its electricity from coal-fired plants last year, according to the California Energy Commission. While natural gas remains the single largest source of the state’s electricity, more than one-third of its power comes from solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy. State law says California’s electric grid must be all-green by 2045.
California’s push to get rid of fossil fuels has been bumpy at times. Residents endured two nights of rolling blackouts during an August 2020 heat wave, a debacle that revealed flaws in the state’s approach. The state is vulnerable during early-evening hours when the sun goes down and solar power wanes, but it’s still too hot to shut off air conditioners. The state is scrambling to install large storage batteries to cover the supply gap, but officials are warned more blackouts are possible.
Biden has set a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. Power plant emissions are a major target of the plan.
Kagan criticized her colleagues for becoming the “decision makers” in such matters.
“I cannot think of many things more frightening,” she wrote.
Environmental groups agreed.
“The Court has decided to hamstring the federal government’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from fossil-fuel-burning power plants. They are taking away the EPA’s ability to do its job in the midst of a climate crisis,” said Mary Creasman, chief executive officer of California Environmental Voters.
While the court ruled that it’s up to Congress to set emissions restrictions, it will likely be difficult to get lawmakers to enact such laws. It would take 60 votes in the Senate to advance legislation, and Republicans control 50 seats.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell enthusiastically supported the court’s decision.
“The court has undone illegal regulations issued by the EPA without any clear congressional authorization and confirmed that only the people’s representatives in Congress — not unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats — may write our nation’s laws,” the Kentucky Republican said.
In his own state, a major coal-producing state, McConnell said the ruling “frees Kentucky’s power producers to provide their customers with cheaper, more reliable electricity.”
Pelosi called the ruling “a severe blow to the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to do its fundamental duty: to protect the environment. By restricting the EPA’s authority, the Republican supermajority on the Court has bowed to the dirty energy special interests who seek to poison the air our children breathe and the water they drink with impunity. “