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What the Supreme Court's EPA ruling will mean for the agency's goals


Earlier this week, on the final day of an enormously consequential term, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a major setback to the Biden administration's efforts to address the climate crisis. In a 6-to-3 decision, the conservative members of the court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to regulate the carbon emissions of power plants. Those rules never actually went into effect, but the ruling is still a win for the West Virginia officials, as well as coal mining companies who brought the case against the EPA. Critics of the decision, meanwhile, including the court's three-member minority, argued that the ruling upends nearly a century of regulatory law and bodes poorly for the country's future efforts to write necessary rules in a fast-changing environment.

We wanted to get some additional perspective on this, so we called William K. Reilly. He led the Environmental Protection Agency under the Republican president George H.W. Bush, but he also served key roles in administrations of both parties, including an investigation into the BP oil spill. And he's also chair emeritus at the World Wildlife Foundation, and he's with us now. Welcome, Mr. Reilly. Thank you so much for joining us.

WILLIAM K REILLY: Very pleased to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: So just for those who may not be familiar with this, the EPA creates and enforces federal rules that address a variety of environmental issues, such as smog and oil spills. By its very nature, the agency's a regulatory department. So what is your sense of what this ruling means for the EPA's authority?

REILLY: Well, I wouldn't overtax the decision or say that it's going to imply anything more than they say with respect to other aspects of EPA activity. But looking at the broader landscape in the United States, the effort to reduce coal to the degree that it was a direct objective of the Clean Power rule - and it was - it's been happening anyway. When coal-fired power plants were presented with the consequences economically, dealing with rules on sulfur dioxides or particulates, they had to decide whether it was worth putting several hundred million dollars into an existing aging coal-fired power plant or whether they would convert to natural gas. And by the scores, they converted to natural gas. Irrespective of this decision, EPA will continue to promulgate rules, and it will have more coming down.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, the Clean Power rule never actually went into effect. It was immediately stayed. It was repealed by the subsequent administration, the Trump administration. But what was it? What was it intended to do?

REILLY: The Clean Power rule recognized that a major source of greenhouse gas in the United States comes from the electrical generating industry. It set out to improve their performance by moving them toward renewable fuels. It necessarily had to address the principal source of greenhouse gases in the electro generating field, and it was coal-fired power plants. And it did that in a very explicit way. It was the explicitness of the intention to remove a fuel source from the country that drew the ire of the Supreme Court in this case, who said that that was farther than EPA had ever gone before. Usually, they try to clean up an industry. They don't try to eliminate the source of a very fact of the industry.

MARTIN: So let me dig into a couple of aspects of this, and I just want to remind people that you led the EPA, as we said, under President George H.W. Bush, and you also worked to pass the Clean Air Act. So you're familiar with both the substance of the act as well as kind of the rule-making process. I take it you think that the sky is not falling, that the EPA will continue to have a role in creating and enforcing rules. How does that work going forward?

REILLY: America is a much cleaner, greener place than it was 50 or so years ago when the Clean Air Act was passed. And the conventional efforts that it has made with respect to pollution control have not been called into question by the Supreme Court. What has been called into question is the consequence, the direct objective of eliminating a fuel from the electrical generating mix in the United States. We can accommodate that. I think the advice to the agency is stay in your lane. Don't explicitly aim to do anything quite so sweeping.

Most of the other statutes have operated to cause polluters to institute new systems that are more efficient, that are cleaner. So those continue to be there, and I think it's a mistake to say the sky is falling or say this has implications for all other aspects of regulatory activity at EPA and even beyond, as some have said. I don't read it that way.

MARTIN: So you just don't buy that this will have impacts beyond this particular decision about this particular rule - because, of course, as you know, the minority very much disagrees with you, and certain other analysts disagree with you. They think it'll have a chilling effect on kind of the regulatory impulse across agencies that aren't even affected by this. The other - obviously other point that critics of the ruling make is that they argue that Congress was deliberately vague in describing the authority to the EPA because they wanted them to have the flexibility to address challenges that perhaps were not foreseen. You just don't buy that.

REILLY: I will say that as someone who was administrator, the ambiguities in statutes, the degree to which the agency had to decide where to come down with respect to an uncertainty in the administration of a law, are legion. So much is asked of the agency without explicit direction as to how. This - I prefer to say and to take this decision as it stands and not to imply that it's going to affect other interpretations where they look for more congressional authority. I hope that's not where it goes with respect to the pollution control responsibility of the agencies, for example, because that's the thing that has done so much good for the public health of everybody.

MARTIN: What strategy do you think the EPA should pursue to continue to fulfill its mission? I remember that you were a fan of voluntary agreements between industry and government in your era, and you were actually able to negotiate a number of voluntary agreements between industry and government. But other people think that the time for that is over because the problem is just too big now, and the climate crisis in particular is just too urgent. What do you say about that?

REILLY: Well, I lament the fact that the country, the Supreme Court, the Congress appear not to share the impression of urgency of the climate challenge that I have and that I think a lot of the country has. Be that as it may, it is still possible to have negotiated agreements with industry in the United States. One measure of that is how many electrical generating companies supported the Clean Power rule - were clear in that, even right up to the decision - and are continually looking for ways to move toward cleaner fuels.

MARTIN: That was William K. Reilly. He served as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush, and he's chair emeritus at the World Wildlife Foundation. Mr. Reilly, thanks so much for sharing this expertise with us.

REILLY: Thanks to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.