The Supreme Court yesterday upheld a comprehensive federal program enacted during the Carter administration to encourage states to promote energy conservation, a law attacked by some states for trampling the reemerging concept of federalism.
In a split decision centering on the federalism debate, the court voted to uphold portions of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 encouraging small-scale power production plants and cogeneration facilities that produce electric, steam and other kinds of energy.
The law also directed states to consider different types of rate schedules and regulatory standards, such as prohibiting master metering in new buildings--using one meter for several living units--and restricting automatic adjustment clauses allowing utilities to increase prices when fuel costs rise without public hearings or state review. It also provided several procedures to consider them.
The justices rejected challenges by the State of Mississippi that the law was an unconstitutional infringement of states' rights. The state's position had been upheld by a lower federal court's decision declaring that "the sovereign State of Mississippi is not a robot or lackey, which may be shuttled back and forth to suit the whim and caprice of the federal government.".
Advocates of energy conservation called the decision a victory.
However, Justice Sandra D. O'Connor, writing for Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice William Rehnquist, disagreed with parts of the majority's conclusion that states' rights weren't hurt and called their analysis "antithetical to the values of federalism . . ." Justice Harry Blackmun wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices William J. Brennan, Byron R. White, Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens. Justice Lewis F. Powell concurred in part and dissented in part.
O'Connor said part of the court's conclusion "rests upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the role that state governments play in our federalist system."
"State legislative and administrative bodies are not field offices of the national bureaucracy," O'Connor said in her dissent. "Nor are they think tanks to which Congress may assign problems for extended study. Instead, each state is sovereign within its own domain, governing its citizens and providing for their general welfare."
The case started on Nov. 9, 1978, when President Carter signed the PURPA into law as part of a package of legislation intended to combat the national energy crisis. Titles I and III of the act directed state utility regulatory commissions and nonregulated utilities to consider adopting specific rate structures and regulatory standards within two years. However, states would receive no penalty for noncompliance.
Section 210 of Title II of the act attempts to encourage the development of cogeneration facilities and small power production plants that use biomass, waste or renewable energy sources such as wind, water or solar energy to produce electricity. It also requires state authorities to implement rules to encourage such facilities and authorizes the government to exempt cogeneration and small power facilities from some state and federal regulations.
A federal court in Mississippi agreed with the state that Congress had exceeded its authority under the Commerce Clause controlling interstate commerce and violated state sovereignty protected under the 10th Amendment, which reserves to states powers not delegated to the federal government or prohibited by the Constitution.
"It is not for us to say whether the means chosen by Congress represent the wisest choice," Justice Blackmun wrote.