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Supreme Court ruling guts the EPA’s ability to enforce Clean Air Act. So What Is the Clean Air Act?

In a blow to the fight against climate change, the United States Supreme Court on Thursday limited how the nation’s main anti-air-pollution law can be used to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

By a 6-3 vote, with conservatives in the majority, the court said that the Clean Air Act does not give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) broad authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that contribute to global warming.

The court’s ruling could complicate the administration’s plans to combat climate change. Its proposal to regulate power plant emissions is expected by the end of the year.

President Joe Biden aims to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade and to have an emissions-free power sector by 2035. Power plants account for roughly 30 per cent of carbon dioxide output.

The ruling came on the same day Biden accused the Supreme Court of “outrageous behaviour” in a speech at the end of the NATO summit in Spain, referring to the top court’s opinion last week in which a half-century of abortion rights protections were overturned.

What is the Clean Air Act?

The Clean Air Act was born out of the modern environmental movement, which began in earnest in the late 1950s and ultimately led to the creation of the EPA.

This federal air quality law regulates air emissions from stationary sources (factories, refineries, boilers, power plants) and mobile sources (passenger cars and trucks, commercial trucks and busses), and authorizes the EPA to establish national air quality standards that dictate allowable levels of harmful pollutants — all with the goal of protecting us from air pollution.

In the 50-plus years since the Clean Air Act was established, air quality has vastly improved. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have been spared pollution-related death and disease, and countless ecosystems have been saved.

Up to that point, regulating air pollutants was largely left up to individual states and local governments, says Albert C. Lin, professor of law at the University of California, Davis. But experts eventually determined that “air pollution is not just a state or local problem, it’s a national or — as it turns out — a global problem,” Lin says. “And one of the major rationales supporting [federal regulation] was that pollution doesn’t stay within state boundaries … We needed national level regulations to address these negative externalities that were not being addressed through state regulations.”

The federal government’s first legislative foray into environmental regulation was the Air Pollution Act of 1955, which provided funding for federal research into air pollution. That led to the Clean Air Act of 1963, which created a program to research techniques for monitoring and controlling air pollution. In 1967, the Air Quality Act was enacted to conduct extensive ambient monitoring studies and stationary source inspections.

What Did the Clean Air Act Establish?

The Clean Air Act of 1970 was significant because it was the first time the U.S. federal government vowed to take actionable steps to protect the health of Americans from air pollution. These measures became known as the Baker Principles, named for the late Republican Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, who, along with the late Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine), shepherded the Clean Air Act of 1970 through a unanimous Senate vote, explains Frank Rambo, senior attorney and leader of the Clean Energy and Air Program at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Those principles included the concept of technology forcing, a strategy that requires firms to use the best available pollution technology available to limit emissions, whether from industrial sources or mobile ones. It also established deadlines for government actions, made those government actions mandatory rather than permissive, and empowered American citizens with the authority to use federal courts to achieve objectives in the event bureaucracy or lawmakers fail to do so.

Major regulatory programs affecting stationary sources were also initiated, including National Ambient Quality Standards (NAAQS), which set allowable levels of harmful pollutants. The adoption of this legislation coincided with the establishment of the EPA, which was created Dec. 2, 1970, to implement the various requirements spelled out by the Clean Air Act.

How Successful Is the Clean Air Act?

Since the Clean Air Act of 1970 was enacted more than 50 years ago, numerous studies have shown its achievements, including a 78 percent reduction in six of the most common pollutants and a 73 percent improvement in air quality.

That cleaner air has translated into improved public health, as well. According to a peer-reviewed 1997 EPA Report to Congress on the benefits of the Act from 1970 to 1990, pollution reductions under the Act in 1990 alone prevented 205,000 early deaths, 10.4 million lost I.Q. points in children due to lead exposure, and millions of other cases of health effects.

Another study found that reductions in fine particle pollution between 1980 and 2000 in U.S. cities led to improvements in average life expectancy at birth of approximately seven months. Lowered levels of pollutants have also dramatically reduced acid rain and saved precious ecosystems.

What is happening now?

The case, West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, No. 20-1530, centered both on whether the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the power to issue regulations for the power industry and whether Congress must “speak with particular clarity when it authorizes executive agencies to address major political and economic questions,” a theory the court refers to as the “major questions doctrine.”

In short, the court holds today that only Congress, not the EPA, has the power to regulate emissions. “Capping 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,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “But 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.”

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