Environmentalists fear the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants could pave the way for other rollbacks that affect the environment and other federal agencies.
NiSource, the parent company of Northern Indiana Public Service Company, the region’s largest utility, also said in a statement that it remains committed to reducing carbon emissions despite the ruling.
“Our main concern is what this means now and for future rulings. Once you start pulling that back, it becomes much more challenging for us to do our pollution prevention work,” said Betsy Maher, executive director of Save the Dunes, adding the ruling sets a precedent for similar decisions going forward.
Several industries along the Lake Michigan shoreline release carbon emissions that could be impacted in the future, she said, adding this is a call-out for congressional action.
“Right now, that’s where this precedent is being set to be made, in Congress,” Maher said.
For his part, U.S. Rep. Frank Mrvan, D-Highland, said in a statement that climate change is an urgent threat to the country and planet and responsible efforts must be taken to ensure the challenge is met in a way that creates a more equitable economy and new job opportunities for everyone.
“In response to the recent Supreme Court decision, this is yet another demonstration of the consequences of our elections. I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress to ensure that the EPA has the resources they need to assess and mitigate the real and evolving risks to our environment,” he said.
Susan Thomas, director of legislation and policy and press secretary for Just Transition Northwest Indiana, called the ruling a “rogue decision” full of red flags.
The ruling, for one thing, is based on a case that doesn’t exist and never went into effect, she said.
“I think it’s setting the standard to go after other regulatory agencies,” Thomas said, adding the Clean Water Act is on the court’s docket next year. “I think it’s a huge green light to industry and polluters.”
The Supreme Court ruling on Thursday “is a devastating ruling and setback for climate change action,” said Kelly Eskew, a clinical professor of business law and ethics at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University-Bloomington.
While it’s unlikely, it’s necessary for the world to meet a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and to move toward carbon neutrality by 2050, Eskew said, as directed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“(The decision) is a major loss for climate regulation. It severely curtails the federal government’s ability to regulate climate change,” Eskew said. “It’s not good for the climate. It’s not good for us. It’s not good for future generations. It’s not good for the Earth. It’s also not good for business.”
What the ruling determined, Eskew said, is that the Clean Air Act does not explicitly direct the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in the way suggested by the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. The plan never went into effect, Eskew said, but Congress could amend the act to give the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
The federal government has administrative agencies that set forth regulations “because a functioning Congress doesn’t have time to deal with all of these issues that the agencies handle and it doesn’t have the expertise,” Eskew said.
“We create administrative agencies, and we fill them with experts, to regulate sectors of our economy because we want experts to make the rules. They have the knowledge of what needs to be done, and this ruling by the Supreme Court moves us towards a nonexpert regulation,” Eskew said.
In the coming days, companies will continue to pursue litigation, Eskew said. Following the decision, some of the largest companies in the country — including Apple, Sales Force, Google, PayPal and others — filed amicus briefs, or documents by a person or group not involved in the case but with interest in the matter, to side with the EPA, Eskew said.
The companies did this, Eskew said, because regulation from the EPA on greenhouse gas emissions “evens the playing field for businesses and utilities.”
“Without the EPA’s ability to regulate in this broad way that it wanted to, you could directly sue utilities. This could expose utilities to torts and nuisances suits from which they were protected by the EPA,” Eskew said.
State-level regulation is still possible, Eskew said, but it’s also possible that a person or business would sue a state for potential action it takes.
But when former President Donald Trump announced in 2017 that the U.S. would leave the Paris Climate Accord and the repeal of the Obama Clean Power Plan, states, local governments and businesses “stepped in where the federal government was no longer operating.”
“The result was that there was a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and it was led by states, mayors, cities, corporations reducing their greenhouse gas emissions,” Eskew said. “The actions of local governments, of counties, of state governments and of the businesses in those areas are incredibly important to efforts to try and meet a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.”
NiSource, NIPSCO’s parent company, said in a statement that officials there will be “closely watching and carefully considering” how the effects of the court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA unfold.
“Meanwhile, we remain committed to our previously stated carbon reduction goal, and we are well on our way toward achieving it. NiSource has already reduced scope on greenhouse gas emissions 58%, and we expect a 90% reduction by 2030 (compared with 2005 levels). Our efforts to achieve this goal have benefits that extend far beyond the environment,” according to the statement.
The utility still plans to retire its remaining coal-fired generation facilities by 2026-2028, to be balanced with more sustainable and lower cost generation from renewable resources to serve the needs of electric customers while maintaining the reliable service.
Additionally, NiSource’s natural gas distribution companies are lowering methane emissions by replacing aging infrastructure, which also increases safety and reliability for customers and communities.
The federal government could still implement rules on new power plants, on leakage of oil and gas production and create subsidies that encourage those initiatives, Eskew said, and the private sector can continue implementing environmental policies.
“What it cannot do is regulate the entire utility industry,” Eskew said. “The shame of that is that type of regulation is the most efficient way to lower greenhouse gas emissions.”