The Supreme Court Stripped EPA’s Power to Cut Emissions — How Can States Respond?

EPA emblem filled with smoke

Photo illustration by Amanda Pontillo, Climate XChange. Smokestack photo by Mike Marrah on Unsplash. EPA Emblem illustration made with reference to images on

In a 6–3 ruling released Thursday, the Supreme Court struck down the EPA’s ability to broadly regulate emissions. This decision will make it exceedingly difficult for the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas pollution in time to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis. It’s difficult to see the Supreme Court’s latest decision as anything but a step backwards in this crucial time for action.

The outcome of West Virginia v. EPA weakens the decision-making power of regulatory agencies — the governing bodies with scientists and subject matter experts who are critical leaders in addressing the impacts of the climate emergency. With Congress at a standstill, this decision limits the ability of the federal government to take any substantial action on climate change and has serious implications for other issues as well. If the scope of executive branch agencies is limited to specific words written by Congress, they may be unable to quickly and sufficiently respond to unforeseen challenges.

What exactly happened?

The Supreme Court issued a ruling in West Virginia v. EPA, a case involving an Obama-era electricity policy, the Clean Power Plan. This plan, proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), attempted to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by shifting the amount of electricity the country gets from coal and natural gas, to renewables like wind and solar. The plan was paused shortly after it was announced until legal issues could be sorted out in the courts. 

Years later, this case was brought before the Supreme Court to answer a simple question: was the EPA’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the authority granted to the agency under the Clean Air Act of 1970? The majority of the Court found that, no, the EPA does not have the authority to broadly limit greenhouse gas emissions in a way that would change the entire country’s power system. The Court reasoned that decisions of major economic or political consequence must be made through specific legislation granting an agency to act. They ruled that the EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act did not give it the authority to implement the Clean Power Plan.

The minority in this Court’s ruling argues that Congress did order the EPA to address climate change through fossil fuel power plant regulation with the passage of the Clean Air Act. The decades-old legislation tasks the agency with regulating pollution that endangers public health or welfare, and the Clean Power Plan would have done just that. As written by Justice Kagan in her dissenting opinion, “The Court appoints itself — instead of Congress or the expert agency — the decision-maker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening.” 

States Will be Key to Future Emissions Reductions

By limiting the federal government’s ability to take action on the climate crisis, West Virginia v. EPA makes state-level action even more imperative. Our team at Climate XChange is doubling down on our mission to assist State Climate Policy Network members across the country in passing legislation to rapidly achieve a low-carbon future. 

If you’d like to see where your state stands on climate policy, visit our State Climate Policy Dashboard. We track over 65 policies across all 50 states, for free on our website, because the public deserves to know exactly how states are progressing on climate.

We know that you share our dedication to the climate movement. Let this most recent step backwards on the federal level fuel more action in states across the country.