The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Supreme Court will hear cases that could undercut Biden’s goals on climate, immigration

A coal-burning plant in Conesville, Ohio. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The Supreme Court on Friday took up cases that could limit the Biden administration’s ambitions on climate change and immigration policy.

The court granted a request from the coal industry and Republican-led states challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to limit greenhouse gases from power plants, which could threaten a key plank of President Biden’s climate agenda.

And it said it would hear a case that would allow conservative states to defend a Trump-era limitation on issuing green cards to noncitizens who may rely too heavily on government aid, which the law calls “public charges.”

In both cases, the Biden administration’s solicitor general had asked the court not to intervene.

West Virginia and officials in 18 other states are trying to head off the sweeping type of emission plan President Barack Obama had proposed in 2016. In that case, the Supreme Court put the plan on hold and it was never implemented.

The states, along with mining interests, are challenging a subsequent lower court decision that they say converts a portion of the Clean Air Act into far too much authority for the EPA to invoke wide control over power plants.

“EPA now has a judicial edict not to limit itself to measures that can be successfully implemented at and for individual facilities,” West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) wrote in his petition to the Supreme Court. “It can set standards on a regional or even national level, forcing dramatic changes in how and where electricity is produced, as well as transforming any other sector of the economy where stationary sources emit greenhouse gases.”

Biden’s solicitor general, Elizabeth B. Prelogar, had told the court it was premature for it to get involved.

Elizabeth Prelogar confirmed as solicitor general ahead of Supreme Court battles over abortion, guns

The EPA has no plans to “resurrect” the Obama plan, she said. Instead, it intends to issue a new rule, “taking into account all relevant considerations, including changes to the electricity sector that have occurred during the last several years,” she wrote.

Further clarification of EPA’s authority would be more appropriate when the courts “can review a concrete and considered EPA rule, rather than speculate as to the regulatory approaches the agency might take.”

The case could have enormous consequences for Biden’s ability to curtail U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and fulfill a major campaign promise to aggressively tackle climate change. Biden wants to cut the nation’s carbon output in half from 2005 levels by the end of the decade.

“This is the equivalent of an earthquake around the country for those who care deeply about the climate issue,” said Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard.

In advance of climate summit, tension among Biden aides on China policy

The high court’s decision to take up the case arrives as Biden is set to attend a major climate conference in Scotland and press China and other top polluters to cut their own contributions to global warming.

Ahead of the climate summit, the administration is doubling down on executive action to make that case after Democrats were forced to trim certain climate provisions from a massive budget bill due to opposition from centrist Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin III from the coal state of West Virginia.

But the case has the potential to limit EPA’s authority.

“It’s a huge deal,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, a lawyer who ran the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation under President George W. Bush.

“As a practical matter, this will almost certainly prevent the Biden administration from moving forward with a new rule to regulate carbon emissions from the power sector,” he added. “They’ll have to wait to see what the Supreme Court says about how (and whether) they can regulate carbon emissions from the power sector under current law.”

Morrisey hailed Friday’s announcement as “a tremendous victory for West Virginia and our nation.”

The cases are West Virginia v. EPA; North American Coal Corp. v. EPA, Westmoreland Mining Holdings v. EPA and North Dakota v. EPA.

Trump officials move to deny green cards, path to citizenship for poor immigrants

In the immigration case, the court stepped in on a controversial rule by the Trump administration that has been litigated for years.

The Trump administration’s expanded definition of who should be considered a public charge and ineligible for legal permanent residency was in place for about a year.

The Biden administration dropped its defense of the rule, and that brought protests from attorneys general in more than a dozen Republican-controlled states who said the Trump rule would save them hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Supreme Court initially turned down their attempts to defend the rules, saying they had to go through lower courts first. They did, led by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R), and lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

The Biden administration said it was up to the executive branch to make the rules.

“States are able to control the defense of their own statutes and regulations,” it said in opposing the request. But states have “no special role in defending federal statutes and regulations.”

More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

Have a question about climate change or climate solutions? Share it with us. You can also sign up for our newsletter on climate change, energy and environment.