Supreme Court Case May Limit Environmental Agency Power

Supreme Court building in Washington D.C.

(Credit: Unsplash)

by | Jan 18, 2024

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The United States Supreme Court heard a case this week that may threaten the standing of environmental regulations and transfer power away from environmental agencies.

The case comes from challenges to a federal regulation requiring fishing vessels to pay for monitors to collect data and oversee fishing operations, but the focus has become the rule underpinning the decision: The Chevron deference.

This 40-year-old doctrine reportedly requires courts to defer to an agency’s interpretation of laws passed by Congress. For example, in the case at hand, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Services’ requirement for fishing vessels was lawful as a “permissible exercise of the agency’s authority” under Chevron, according to CBS News.

Some members of the Supreme Court warned of “devastating consequences” if the ruling, one of the most cited in U.S. law, was to be overturned. It may allow business groups who consider a given rule to be overregulation to determine the regulation’s meaning rather than executive branch officials. It would also give courts power over agencies when interpreting ambiguous statutes, according to a New York Times report.

“Agencies know things that courts do not, and that’s the basis of Chevron,” said Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in the New York Times. “And my concern is that if we take away something like Chevron, the court will then suddenly become a policymaker.”

Those opposed to the ruling from 1984 say it can lead to overregulation and that its interpretation changes depending on what political party holds a majority in office. It was noted during the hearing that the Supreme Court hasn’t applied Chevron deference since 2016.

“The reality of how this works is Chevron itself ushers in shocks to the system every four or eight years when a new administration comes in, and, whether it’s communications law or securities law or competition law or environmental law, it goes from pillar to post,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh said in the CBS report.

Court Case Emerges as Regulatory Measures Attempt to Enforce Decarbonization

Many reports covering global progress on decarbonization consider the world to be well behind the level of emissions reductions needed to meet net zero. Most all of these reports also recommend stronger government policies in order to fill the gaps. For example, the International Energy Agency’s 2023 Renewables Report shows that despite the goal of tripling global renewables capacity by 2030, additional policies and regulatory measures will be needed to meet the goal of 11,000 gigawatts.

The EPA has worked to further regulate heavy emitters in the U.S. despite considerable backlash from targeted industries. In May of last year, the EPA unveiled rules for the coal and natural gas industry to reduce emissions from the sector.

Those within the industry have fought the ruling over concerns that it would raise energy costs. In 2022, the Supreme Court overruled the EPA’s authority to regulate emissions from existing power plants, another of the agency’s attempts to support a shift to renewable energy.

With policy a major driver of change for the clean energy transition and emissions reductions, many fear that overruling the Chevron deference could further limit such federal agency efforts.

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