Supreme Court Limits Agency’s Statutory Authority

 

On June 30, the Supreme Court issued its decision in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Writing for a 6-3 majority, Chief Justice Roberts held that the Clean Air Act did not give the EPA authority to enact the Clean Power Plan, which would reduce the percentage of coal and natural gas power plants and increase the use of renewable energy. This shift from coal and natural gas to renewable energy was the largest, recent effort to address climate change and would require plant operators to build or invest in new or existing renewable energy sources, with some changes required by 2030. The opinion marks the first articulation by the court of the Major Questions Doctrine. “Under that doctrine… a clear statement is necessary for a court to conclude that Congress intended to delegate authority ‘of this breadth to regulate a fundamental sector of the economy.’” The Court held, in this case, that the authority the EPA was claiming through the Clean Power Plan was too broad after considering the statute granting them authority to regulate certain pollutants from existing sources in the Clean Air Act. Justice Gorsuch joined the majority but wrote a separate concurrence to discuss how the major questions doctrine is also essential to maintain the separation of powers required by the Constitution. Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor dissent, saying the Court “strips the [EPA] of the power Congress gave it to respond to ‘the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.’”  The dissenting justices explain that Congress gives broad delegation purposefully: “so an agency can respond, appropriately and commensurately, to new and big problems.” Some commentators have suggested that the opinion invites more litigation challenging agency authority.

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