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The Climate 202

3 takeaways from the Supreme Court's big climate ruling

The Climate 202

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Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Today we're thinking critically about how we frame climate stories. But first:

For activists, the Supreme Court's big climate ruling could have been worse

The Supreme Court on Thursday curtailed the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, removing a key tool in the federal government's toolbox for tackling climate change.

The vote was 6 to 3, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. writing for the majority that the EPA lacks the authority to make sweeping changes to the nation's power sector without explicit approval from Congress. Justice Elena Kagan penned a scathing dissent for the court's liberals.

By now, you've probably read a variety of takes on the ruling, including my reporting and stories by our Washington Post colleagues Robert Barnes and Dino Grandoni.

Rather than rehashing that coverage, we're bringing you a fresh look at three main takeaways from the decision, including its implications for the power sector and the planet:

1. It wasn't climate activists' worst nightmare

We're not trying to sugarcoat the ruling, which will set back America's efforts to cut carbon pollution from the power sector, a leading contributor to climate change. But the decision did not go as far as many climate advocates had feared.

In particular, the majority did not take away the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases from power plants, vehicle tailpipes or other major sources of planet-warming pollution.

Instead, the justices said the agency cannot resurrect President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, a now-defunct rule that would have forced utilities to engage in “generation shifting,” or switching from coal-fired power generation to natural gas or renewable energy.

  • “The West Virginia decision is damaging but still leaves many tools available to EPA, other federal agencies, states, cities and the private sector to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” Michael Gerrard, senior counsel at Arnold & Porter and a professor at Columbia Law School, said in an email. “It’s a bad bump but far from the end of the road.”

Cara Horowitz, a professor at UCLA School of Law, agreed.

  • While the decision restricts the EPA's power, it still “preserves large swaths of EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases across a range of sources,” she said in a statement. “In some ways I’m actually relieved. With this court we were bracing for almost anything, so this could have been worse.”

Harvard Law School's Jody Freeman:

2. America is ditching coal anyway

Regardless of the ruling, the United States is moving away from coal, as the chief executives of electric utilities pledge to abandon the dirtiest fossil fuel, our colleague Steven Mufson reports this morning.

  • U.S. coal production dropped 35 percent between 2015 and 2021, according to the Energy Information Administration.
  • The Sierra Club's anti-coal campaign contends that 357 coal-fired power plants have shut down, with 173 remaining.
  • The Clean Power Plan was supposed to shrink coal's share of U.S. power generation to 27 percent by 2030; instead it fell to 21.8 percent last year, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.

“We don’t really see that there would be any immediate impact on our transition plans,” said Vicky Sullivan, director of climate policy at Duke Energy. “We still plan to transition out of coal by 2035 and we don’t see the Supreme Court’s decision having a material impact on that.”

3. Republican attorneys general are just getting started

In the majority opinion, Roberts invoked the major questions doctrine, a conservative legal idea that says federal agencies need explicit authorization from Congress to decide issues of “major economic and political significance.”

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) made clear on Thursday that he plans to wield the major questions doctrine to continue challenging President Biden's climate agenda.

“West Virginia is ready for President Biden’s workarounds,” he said at a news conference. “We took them all the way up to the Supreme Court and we beat them this time. And we are prepared to do it again, again and again.”

In particular, Morrisey hinted that he plans to sue over the Securities and Exchange Commission's recent proposal to require all publicly traded companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and the risks they face from climate change. “That would also fall into the major questions category where the Biden administration is trying to transform all these agencies and turn them into an environmental regulator,” he said.

Agency alert

Offshore drilling plan may focus on Gulf, excluding other waters

The Interior Department has recommended to the White House that any new offshore oil and gas auctions over the next five years be in the Gulf of Mexico, according to two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly, Jarrett Renshaw and Nichola Groom report for Reuters. 

The plan, which was due to be released on Thursday, is not yet publicly available. It is unclear whether the proposal will follow Interior’s suggestions and focus solely on the Gulf, where the fossil fuel industry has had a huge presence for decades, or whether the administration will include other regions such as the Arctic.

Interior held its most recent offshore lease sale for the Gulf of Mexico in November, but a federal judge later blocked it, ruling the agency had failed to account for its impact on climate change. The department cannot hold additional sales until the new plan is in place.

Interior raises $22 million from onshore lease sales

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management on Thursday raised about $22 million from its first oil and gas lease sales on public lands, Nichola Groom and Liz Hampton report for Reuters.

The oil and gas industry bid on nearly 55 percent of the roughly 130,000 acres in play, according to a review of the results on online auction site EnergyNet

More than 90 percent of the acreage offered was in Wyoming, which accounted for $12.9 million of the winning bids. Smaller auctions in Montana and North Dakota brought in $7.2 million, with auctions in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado and Nevada making up the balance.

Last year, the BLM increased the royalty fees that oil and gas companies must pay to drill on public lands. The agency has not yet released official results from the lease sales, which will probably include the names of winning bidders.

On the Hill

Rep. Pallone urges Biden to halt oil exports to lower gas prices

House Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) on Thursday sent a letter to President Biden pushing him to halt crude oil exports in an effort to boost domestic supply and help lower gasoline prices amid the war in Ukraine.

In the letter, Pallone thanked Biden for his attempts to address record fuel costs while urging him to restore a pause on the export of crude oil. In 2015, the Republican-controlled Congress repealed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act's crude oil export ban, which had been in effect for more than 40 years.

“Stopping crude oil exports would increase the domestic supply of oil available to U.S. refiners and would consequently help reduce prices at the pump here at home,” Pallone wrote in the letter. “I, therefore, urge you to exercise your authority to halt the export of U.S. crude oil, except for those exports that directly help Ukraine and other U.S. allies weather the effects of Russian aggression.”

International climate

OPEC reaffirms slightly higher oil output

Ahead of President Biden’s July visit to Saudi Arabia, the kingdom and its oil-exporting allies on Thursday agreed to slightly increase crude oil output while waiting to see if additional spare capacity would be needed in light of Russian oil embargoes and other output disruptions in countries such as Libya or Nigeria, The Post’s Steven Mufson reports. 

OPEC Plus — a combination of the 13-member Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and an informal group of non-OPEC members led by Russia — met virtually and extended an earlier decision to add 648,000 barrels a day to oil markets in July and August. Virtually all of that would come from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, said Helima Croft, head of global commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets.

During his visit, Biden is expected to push the kingdom to take action to lower oil prices by increasing capacity. But some energy analysts say there are production shortfalls in many OPEC states, raising questions about the size of OPEC's spare capacity. 

When asked at a news briefing in Spain whether he would ask the crown prince and other regional leaders to raise oil production, Biden said “No, I’m not going to ask them.” But he added: “I’ve indicated to them that I thought they should be increasing oil production, generically — not to the Saudis particularly.”

In the atmosphere


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