Mainers speak out against Supreme Court decision regulating greenhouse gases

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Emissions from a coal-fired power plant are silhouetted against the setting sun in Kansas City, Mo., Feb. 1, 2021.
Charlie Riedel

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday issued a ruling limiting the federal government’s authority to regulate the greenhouse gases that drive climate change. The decision was roundly criticized by Maine’s environmental community, state and federal officials and representatives of some Maine businesses.

The case deals with a set of regulations from the Obama administration, known as the Clean Power Plan. It aimed to move power production from fossil fuels to renewables, and used the Clean Air Act to set guidelines for emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants.

The coal-producing state of West Virginia sued the Environmental Protection Agency, joined by 16 other states and two coal companies. They said the EPA overstepped its authority, and that the Clean Air Act was not designed with climate change in mind. Thursday, in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court agreed.

Jack Shapiro, who works on climate policy for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, called the decision harmful. And he said limiting carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants upwind of Maine would have also had other benefits.

“The benefits of acting on climate, as we know, don’t just accrue to future generations," Shapiro said, "they also slow the impacts of dangerous toxic air pollution.”

In their ruling, the justices wrote that “a decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body.”

But Shapiro said Congress has already weighed in here, by passing the Clean Air Act.

Dave Reidmiller of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute climate center said the decision will shift more of the burden for tackling climate change to states like Maine.

"It's a pretty big blow for the federal executive branch's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, the primary cause of climate change." Reidmiller says. "And it relegates a lot of responsibility to other sources of climate pollution now, and not these dirty coal-fired power plants."

But it's not just environmentalists blasting the decision.

"There's a war, and it's between fossil fuel and saving the planet," says Tony Buxton, a Maine attorney who represents industrial energy consumers such as paper mills and ski areas.

"And I'm saying that as a representative of business, not as a representative of some left-wing organization," he says. "We need to get to work on this."

Buxton criticized Thursday's decision because the businesses he represents want a stable regulatory environment that makes steady incremental progress toward environmental and climate goals.

"This comes out to be a huge victory for the fossil fuel industry, particularly the fossil fuel industry using plants that are out of date, inefficient, and not in the public interest. Virtually all outside the state of Maine," he says.

U.S. Sen. Angus King, U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree and Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey all issued statements opposing the ruling.

King, who sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said, “This is the latest ideologically-driven opinion from this Court, and the ruling opens the door for it to strike down other vital regulations; our nation and planet are less safe due to their judicial activism and heedlessness to the real-world results of their actions."

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Murray Carpenter is Maine Public’s climate reporter, covering climate change and other environmental news.