Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

In a 6-3 vote, SCOTUS leveled the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s legal authority to regulate the electrical grid and make broad regulations under the Clean Air Act. The ruling curbs the EPA’s ability to regulate climate change by setting limits on how the agency can use its power to control greenhouse gas emissions. The Supreme Court’s decision thus weakens the federal government’s ability to follow states like New Mexico in reducing pollution from fossil fuels.

“By greatly diminishing the regulatory authority of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Court puts the interests of corporations over the interests of people, continues to destroy its own legitimacy, and makes it harder for our federal government to fight back against the existential threat of climate change,” said New Mexico Speaker of the House Brian Egolf (D-47).

The Clean Power Plan (CPP) that is the center of the  case was proposed by the EPA in 2015 by the Obama administration. Among the provisions, the CPP had included regulation at existing power plants under Section 7411(d) of Title 42 of the United States Code to implement emissions reduction technology, “within the fence line” and generation shifting to alternative clean energy sources such as solar and wind power “outside the fence line”.

Obama’s CPP was stayed by the courts and the Trump administration‘s EPA put forth a less-aggressive Affordable Clean Power rule which was also stayed by courts. West Virginia vs. the Environmental Protection Agency appeal by multiple states and coal industry companies challenged the stay, questioning the EPA’s ability to regulate existing power plants under 7411(d) as proposed in the CPP.

The SCOTUS ruling determined that Congress did not authorize the EPA to make a shift toward cleaner energy sources and limits the EPA from making wide ranging regulatory decisions and technological requirements to control greenhouse emissions from power plants under the authority of the Clean Air Act. The ruling also limits the policymaking power of the agency.

 “Congress did not grant EPA the authority to devise emissions caps based on the generation shifting approach the Agency took in the Clean Power Plan,” the majority wrote. 

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the Biden administration is formulating its own power-plant regulations and was waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision before moving forward. “We’re going to be ready to go as soon as the Supreme Court rules,” Regan told Congress in April. The EPA was also working to develop policies that would give it the authority to require retrofitting for methane emission reductions new and existing oil and gas facilities. Industry supporters contended retrofitting would raise the cost of production and energy prices for consumers.

The Clean Air Act has been amended many times since it was enacted in 1955. The 1990 amendments gave increased federal authority to target urban air pollution, emissions, and ozone depletion and prevented an estimated  230,000 premature deaths and millions of cases of disease. In the US, reductions in air pollution-caused death estimates have been largely driven by reductions in outdoor air pollution. However, across the world since 1990 reduction in air pollution death rates have come from improving indoor air pollution.

How bad is pollution in the US? When the  WHO updated its guidelines to take into account the most recent findings about pollutants in 2021, results showed that most of the US is currently breathing unhealthy levels of pollution. Scientists are learning that air pollution is even worse than they considered and just small increases in air pollution can have health consequences.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said the SCOTUS ruling highlights the importance of state-level policies that provide protections that the majority of Americans support.

“Today’s disappointing decision from the U.S. Supreme Court undermines the authority of the federal government to meaningfully act to address the climate crisis at a time when action has never been more urgent…this is a fight for our future, and we cannot slow our momentum,” she said.

Lujan Grisham’s administration leads the country in regulations for the oil and gas industry, advancing clean car standards, modernizing our electric grid and expediting the transition to renewable energy.

President Biden and the EPA’s Regan also criticized the ruling, fearing it sets a precedent that could limit the authority of other agencies like the Interior Department, which oversees oil and gas development on federal public land.

Supporters of the O&G industry in New Mexico said imposing new regulations on emissions was government overreach that would negatively impact oil and gas – a critical segment of the state’s economy. U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell (R-NM) said the decision shifts policy decisions to Congress and away from the EPA.

“By limiting the ability of federal agencies to invent wide-reaching policy changes that Congress has not given them the authority to make, the Supreme Court has returned power to the American people and their elected representatives,” Herrell said.

Political and Policy Director for Conservation Voters New Mexico Ben Shelton said, “Our environment does not stop at our state borders – lack of action by surrounding states will jeopardize our clean air and will have consequences for New Mexicans.” He said that despite the lack of strong environmental regulations on the federal level, state leaders must continue to push for clean-air policies.

“As federal protections for our communities and families continue to be weakened by the Supreme Court of the United States, it is imperative that New Mexico’s state leaders do everything in their power to address the climate crisis,” Shelton said.

Lujan said her administration is committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and protecting public health, while at the same time growing and diversifying the state’s economy to lift up all New Mexico communities.