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U.S. Supreme Court ruling kills broad EPA plan to ditch coal for renewables

Trimble County Generating Station.
Trimble County Generating Station.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision issued Thursday could severely limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to move the nation towards renewable energy.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by coal companies and states, including Kentucky and West Virginia, seeking to curb the federal agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions.

In a six-to-three decision, the Supreme Court said Congress didn’t give the EPA power to make broad changes to the utility sector.

The EPA had planned to tell states to cut carbon emissions by nearly a third, and, in the ruling, the Chief Justice John Roberts conceded cutting emissions might be a “sensible solution to the crisis of the day.”

However, unless explicitly authorized by Congress, the high court said the EPA can only regulate emissions on a facility-by-facility basis.

“It is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme,” Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “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 a dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan said the court was weighing in on important climate policy decisions when “it does not have a clue about how to address climate change.”

No matter the decision, utilities may continue to move away from coal anyways. 

Kentucky’s largest utility, LG&E and KU Energy, is still reviewing the ruling's impact. Spokesperson Chris Whelan said the company still wants to be an environmental steward and plans to retire 2,000 megawatts of coal-fired power by 2035.

“We’re committed to not burn coal beyond 2050 unless it is mitigated with carbon dioxide removal technologies [It] really doesn’t change our plans at this stage,” she said.  

Environmental groups in the region are appalled at the ruling, while coal industry supporters are celebrating a victory.

Tom Cormons, executive director of Appalachian Voices, said the decision undercuts rules that prevent the air from “becoming a dumping ground for corporate polluters.

“By restricting how the EPA can address climate-altering carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act, this Supreme Court ruling endangers all of us and future generations, and the harm will be felt most acutely in communities that are already disadvantaged,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kentucky Republican Attorney General Daniel Camerontweeted the ruling would prevent an “extreme climate change agenda” from causing “irreparable damage” to the coal industry.

Justin is LPM's Data Reporter. Email Justin at jhicks@lpm.org.