The Supreme Court, Washington, October 22, 2021.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Folder

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court tussled Monday with the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to curb greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s power plants, a case that could hamper plans of the Biden administration to fight climate change.

The judges heard more than two hours of arguments on whether to limit the EPA’s power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from electric utilities on the same day that a UN scientific report has painted a dire picture of global climate change.

A major report by a panel of hundreds of UN scientists has detailed how climate change – caused by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas – is already having deadly consequences and will get worse.

The worst depends on how quickly the world reduces its carbon emissions, with coal being the biggest polluter, according to the report.

At the High Court, judges appealed 19 states and mostly Republican-led coal companies that argue the EPA has only narrow authority to regulate carbon production.

Some conservative justices seemed skeptical of the EPA’s broad authority over carbon dioxide emissions, but there could be hurdles to releasing a major ruling. Among these are the arguments of operators of power plants serving 40 million people who are asking the court to maintain flexibility for companies to reduce emissions while maintaining reliable service.

President Joe Biden has pledged to halve greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade, but he has so far failed to get Congressional approval of proposals on the climate change contained in its Build Back Better plan.

A new policy to regulate the carbon outputs of power plants is not expected before the end of the year, Elizabeth Prelogar, Biden’s lead Supreme Court lawyer, told justices Monday.

But the court didn’t seem interested in Prelogar’s argument that it should dismiss the case because there is no current EPA plan in place to deal with the carbon production of the power stations.

Environmental groups fear the court will preemptively undermine any plan Biden’s team develops to tackle emissions from power plants.

A sweeping court ruling could also weaken regulatory efforts that extend far beyond the environment, including consumer protection, workplace safety and public health. Several conservative justices have criticized what they see as the unchecked power of federal agencies.

These concerns were evident in court orders rejecting two Biden administration policies aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. Last summer, the court’s 6-3 conservative majority ended a break on evictions for unpaid rent. In January, the same six judges blocked a requirement that workers at large employers be vaccinated or tested regularly and wear a mask at work.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, speaking at a recent event in Washington, pitched the power plant case to determine who should make the rules. “Should it be unelected bureaucrats or representatives of the people in Congress?” Morrisey said. West Virginia leads the states opposed to broad EPA authority.

But David Doniger, a climate change expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Supreme Court’s review of the issue was premature, a view shared by the administration.

He said opponents of the administration are coming up with “horror stories about extreme regulations the EPA may issue in the future. The EPA is writing a new rule on a clean slate.

The power plant case has a long and complicated history that begins with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. This plan would have required states to reduce emissions from electricity generation, primarily by shifting away from coal-fired power plants.

But this plan never took effect. Acting on a lawsuit brought by West Virginia and others, the Supreme Court blocked it in 2016 by a 5-4 vote, with conservatives in the majority.

With the plan on hold, the legal battle over it continued. But after President Donald Trump took office, the EPA repealed the Obama-era plan. The agency argued that its power to cut carbon emissions was limited and devised a new plan that sharply reduced the federal government’s role in the matter.

New York, 21 other mostly Democratic states, the District of Columbia and some of the nation’s largest cities have pushed ahead with the Trump plan. The federal appeals court in Washington ruled against the repeal and the new plan, and its ruling left nothing in effect while the new administration drafted new policy.

Adding to the unusual nature of the High Court’s involvement, the reductions sought in the Obama plan by 2030 have already been achieved through the market-driven closure of hundreds of coal-fired power plants.

Major companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Tesla support the administration.

A decision is expected at the end of June.

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