On June 30, 2022 the Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case West Virginia vs. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The decision limits EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from coal and oil-fired power plants.

The decision is disappointing and concerning. Climate change is already harming lung health across the country and science dictates we must act swiftly and aggressively to limit its worst impacts. But what does this ruling mean, and how will it impact climate action moving forward?

What is the West Virginia vs. EPA case?

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is required to set regulations to protect people from unsafe levels of air pollution. Previous court cases have confirmed that this responsibility includes limiting the emission of greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

In 2015, EPA finalized the Clean Power Plan, which set federal rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. The Lung Association pushed for these rules and celebrated when they were finalized into law. Several industry groups and some states sued in federal court to block the rules. The Supreme Court prevented the regulations from going into effect while the case slowly worked through the courts, and they were never implemented.

In 2019, EPA repealed the Clean Power Plan and replaced it with the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) Rule. This rule includes much weaker measures to address greenhouse gases from the power sector. The Lung Association filed a lawsuit against this rule with our attorneys at Clean Air Task Force, arguing that the ACE rule violated the Clean Air Act by not adequately protecting the public from climate change. We won our case in lower court, and the ACE rule was effectively overturned.

In 2021, several states, led by West Virginia, appealed to the Supreme Court, asking for a decision on how broad the EPA’s authority is to limit greenhouse gases from the power sector. The Supreme Court agreed to take the case.

West Virginia v. EPA consolidated several cases together, including our lawsuit over the ACE rule. It was argued before the Court in February 2022 and the Supreme Court released its opinion in June 2022. The decision was 6-3 (six justices agreeing on the ruling, three dissenting.) Here is the press statement the Lung Association issued in response (along with the American Public Health Association, who joined the case.)

What does the Supreme Court’s “West Virginia vs. EPA” ruling do?

The bad news: The Supreme Court ruled that the pollution control system EPA employed as the basis for the 2015 Clean Power Plan – switching electricity generation from fossil fuels to clean sources – was outside its authority to regulate emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants. The majority decided that Clean Air Act does not permit EPA to write these regulations for power plants the way it did in the Clean Power Plan.

EPA leadership have announced they plan to write new regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, to replace the Clean Power Plan and the ACE rule. However, EPA now cannot base those regulations on achieving emissions reductions by switching from fossil fuels to clean sources. The decision removes this key tool out of EPA’s regulatory toolbox, leaving it with fewer options to achieve a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The broader future implications of the case are also concerning. The decision demonstrates a majority of the justices could be more inclined to overturn other major federal agency regulations in the future. There are many open questions about what that may look like.

The good news: This ruling does not block the EPA from limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The Supreme Court upheld EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector. Multiple paths remain for strong carbon pollution standards under the Clean Air Act.

This ruling does not block EPA from the many other obligations and tools it has to reduce other dangerous pollution under the Clean Air Act, such as air toxics and ozone. And it does not block EPA’s other climate actions that are in the works, such as stronger greenhouse gas emissions limits for cars and limits on methane from the oil and gas industry.

Why is this important? How does it relate to lung health?

Climate change is not a far-off threat. It is harming Americans’ health now. Our changing climate is driving worsened wildfires and dangerous smoke; extreme heat; more harmful ozone pollution; and lung health harms from flooding events.

Fossil fuel-fired power plants are driving climate change. They also directly pollute the air we breathe and cause health harms nationwide. Cleaning up power plants is essential to addressing climate change. It is also essential to health.

What needs to be done now?

This decision means that urgent action from EPA is more important than ever. Here are three key priorities and how you can help:

  • EPA must act quickly under its remaining authority to establish new rules cutting greenhouse gases from fossil fuel-fired power plants.
  • EPA must move forward with additional measures to reduce greenhouse gases, including cutting methane from the oil and gas industry and carbon emissions from vehicles.
  • EPA must also move forward with additional regulations under consideration that would limit other dangerous air pollutants. For example, EPA has clear authority to finalize much-needed updates to national air pollution standards. Please join us in calling on EPA to set a stronger national limit on particle pollution today.

We cannot afford further delays to combat the climate crisis or cleaning up dangerous air pollution.

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