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Supreme Court Argument Highlights Need for Biden Climate Action

President has broad climate powers independent of case outcome.


A high-stakes argument before the Supreme Court on Monday will spotlight the urgent need for President Biden to take bold executive action to fight climate change, but the best outcome could be for the court to decline to decide the case at all.

In Monday's oral argument in West Virginia v. EPA, the court will consider a petition from coal companies and their allies to limit the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act.

In a brief filed with other groups in the case, the Center for Biological Diversity has argued the court should decline to decide the case at all because it centers on an Obama-era power plant rule that never took effect.

"The Supreme Court should not decide the limits of phantom pollution rules that don't exist," said Jason Rylander, an attorney at the Center's Climate Law Institute. "But no matter what the court does, President Biden still possesses significant authority to address the climate crisis. He needs to take bold action now, under all of our flagship environmental laws."

The long-running case involves the Trump administration's 2019 repeal of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. The rule has never taken effect because of a Trump repeal, and the Biden administration has pledged to revise to revise it.

The D.C. Circuit Court rejected the Trump repeal in a 2021 decision but did not actually reinstate the Clean Power Plan. Now the Supreme Court is considering the extent of the EPA's authority to regulate existing pollution sources without an actual case or controversy before it -- something federal courts are expressly forbidden to do.

The Supreme Court previously made clear that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. But coal companies and their allies are nonetheless asking the court to strip the EPA of important tools to limit climate-heating emissions from coal and gas-fired power plants.

Monday's Supreme Court argument will come on the same day that the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is scheduled to release a major new scientific report on climate change's threats to human health and ecosystems.

"It's a tragic irony that the Supreme Court is considering limiting the EPA's powers on the same day that the U.N. releases its latest dire warning about the catastrophic harms of climate inaction," Rylander said.

While regulating power plants under the Clean Air Act is necessary to address the climate crisis, it is only one of an array of environmental provisions that should be deployed to reduce greenhouse gases, the Center says.

For example, the Biden administration should deny Clean Water Act permits for fossil fuel infrastructure projects as contrary to the public interest and end leasing and drilling on public lands under to the Mineral Leasing Act and other laws.

The Center for Biological Diversity also released a report this week outlining a suite of additional powers that President Biden could unlock to fight the climate crisis by declaring a national climate emergency. Using authorities under the National Emergencies Act, the Defense Production Act and the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, the president could halt crude oil exports, stop offshore oil and gas drilling, restrict international fossil fuel investment and rapidly manufacture and distribute renewable energy systems.

At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive.

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