Supreme Court EPA ruling: New focus on states’ climate fight

A new Supreme Court ruling has limited the government’s powers to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, but that’s a different story for state lawmakers.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The US Supreme Court limited the federal government’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. But his decision did not affect the power of states.

That puts renewed focus on efforts across the country to limit reliance on power plants that spew warming emissions into the air. While Democratic states have taken the lead in the most aggressive climate policies in recent years, some Republican-led states are also helping to transition the US power grid to cleaner energy sources.

“This ruling makes it clear that the actions of governors and state legislatures matter more than ever. Fortunately, the state’s authority to curb greenhouse gas emissions has not changed,” the Democratic government said. Jay Inslee of Washington, Kathy Hochul of New York and Gavin Newsom of California said in a statement after the verdict. The three are co-chairs of the US climate alliance, a group of 24 countries dedicated to climate protection.

Governments can reduce emissions from power plants in a handful of direct and indirect ways. The most important of these are carbon markets, which aim to reduce emissions from large, polluting installations over time, and regulations that require utilities to purchase certain amounts of energy from renewable or carbon-free sources.

California, New York and Washington are all known for setting some of the nation’s most ambitious climate targets. All three have pledged to get 100% of their electricity from zero-carbon sources by 2040 or 2045. But they are not alone. According to the US Climate Alliance, 18 countries have set targets for 100% clean energy.

Most of the states in the alliance are led by Democrats, but a few, including Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maryland, have Republican governors. Together, the states are responsible for 42% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

So-called renewable portfolio standards do not directly regulate emissions. But they have a similar effect by encouraging utilities not to buy electricity from carbon-emitting sources like coal-fired power plants. They are also promoting the expansion of solar, wind and other types of renewable energy so that utilities have enough places to buy energy when rules tighten.

More than a dozen U.S. states are also participating in a form of carbon market that regulates emissions from power plants more directly. Such markets set caps on the amount of emissions allowed, and polluters must purchase allowances equal to the amount they wish to emit.

The permitted emissions cap decreases over time, causing the price of the emission allowances to rise. The goal is to encourage power plants and other polluters to reduce their emissions over time in ways that are economically optimal for them and their customers.

California operates a cap-and-trade program that’s a key element in the state’s path to reducing emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, though some critics question whether it can meet that goal. On the East Coast, 11 states have joined forces to launch the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a similar market-based emissions reduction program.

“If the EPA doesn’t have that authority, that certainly doesn’t stop states from moving forward,” said Cary Coglianese, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who focuses on regulation.

The problem, however, is that climate change is a global problem and mixed government efforts are not enough to make real progress.

Indeed, the states that produce the most coal and natural gas are largely Republican-led, and they have had a mixed record of promoting policies that support clean energy.

West Virginia, a heavily coal-producing state, brought the lawsuit against the EPA. In 2020, the state got 88% of its electricity from coal, with renewables like hydroelectric power and wind accounting for just 6%. Legislators repealed a state law in 2015 that required a certain amount of electricity to come from renewable or alternative sources.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, Wyoming, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois and North Dakota produced the most coal among the states in 2020. Texas, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and West Virginia are the top natural gas producers.

Texas, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma are among the states that have set modest renewable energy targets for electric utilities, but they have not been updated in recent years to set more stringent targets going forward. Still, Texas produces by far the most wind energy in the country, and Oklahoma ranks third, according to the US Energy Information Administration. That is largely driven by market forces and is unlikely to change given the EPA ruling.

Dan Farber, faculty director of the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, said market forces making coal a less economically viable energy source and reducing the cost of wind and solar will likely continue to shape states’ Energy decisions independent of political ideology.

“When you talk about climate change, there are a lot of places where that conversation goes nowhere,” he said. “But if you’re talking about renewable energy and modernizing the energy system, there are a lot of red states that have some traction.” Supreme Court EPA ruling: New focus on states’ climate fight

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