The Supreme Court ended its term today by striking a blow to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its authority to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.
The opinion addressed a series of lawsuits around the Clean Power Plan — an Obama-era directive meant to curb emissions from energy facilities powered by coal. This directive technically never took effect, and these emissions ended falling anyway, as coal plants were replaced by natural gas through economic forces. But the Trump administration opted to repeal the Clean Power Plan in 2019 — setting up the court’s decision today.
The ruling comes amid renewed global urgency to stem the climate crisis. Earlier this year, the U.N. said it’s “now or never” to take actions to allay the climate emergency, which is propelling extreme weather. New York is consistently feeling the fallout from this emergency, whether its from the rain-soaked remnants of Hurricane Ida last year or rising food prices happening now.
But what does the ruling mean for the states working with the EPA to curb carbon? The agency may now need Congressional approval to enact some carbon rules, which could slow down the process during periods of heavy partisanship.
Basil Seggos, the commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, spoke with WNYC host Sean Carlson about the ruling’s potential fallout.
Their conversation is edited below for clarity.
Carlson: New York State and the EPA collaborate on environmental projects — policy, regulation and enforcement.
What was your initial reaction to hearing the Supreme Court decision? Does it matter for New Yorkers?
Seggos: Great question. Well, we knew it was coming and based on the last few weeks, we had a feeling this was not gonna be a good decision, and indeed, it is not a good decision. It's somewhat devastating, unfortunately.
Congress has not acted on carbon emissions, really since the early 1990s — effectively leaving it to the authority of the EPA and EPA finding creative ways to do so. Now the Supreme Court has eviscerated EPAs ability to do that.
And this in the middle of what we all know is a global crisis in climate change. So it was a major setback. We, like everybody else, are all still digesting it. But it's clear. This has been a major blow to EPA's authority.
New York State has some of the strongest environmental protection laws in the country.
So if the Supreme Court is curtailing the EPA, which is a federal agency, does that have an impact on our state policy, which is trying to reach net-zero emissions?
Generally, no. States have the authority to exceed the stringency of any federal laws — and that's what you have here in New York. We do have strong very strong environmental laws, very strong climate laws. We're making billions of dollars of investments in clean energy.
But what it does most is shine a light on state action, right?
It puts more of a burden on New York — puts more of a burden on 49 other states — to step and do the kinds of things that the federal government needs to do. And frankly, the federal government wants to do.
But now it's back on us — at least until Congress and perhaps the EPA can get creative and find ways in which to put the U.S. back in the lead on this issue.
A specific example of a greenhouse gas issue — that gets a lot of attention in the news — is the Greenidge Generation bitcoin mining operation in upstate New York.
Can you tell us what the latest on that front is?
Well, that's somewhat of a timely question and we didn't arrange it like this. Earlier today, we actually just came out with a denial of that facility permit renewal, based on the state's own greenhouse gas and climate law.
We found the plant to be inconsistent with our state law and issued the denial
That's perhaps a counterpoint to what's happening at the federal level. But in terms of state authority, the Supreme Court decision won't have any effect on, on, uh, on the state's ability to curtail those kinds of emission sources.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s rollback of concealed-carry laws, New York is moving this week to harden gun control. Could the state do something similar for carbon emissions?
Yes. Luckily, the legislature enacted and the governor signed in 2019, the most ambitious climate law in the country. And it requires us to curtail emissions economy-wide — not just from the power sector, but transportation, housing, agriculture.
We need to hit those really ambitious net zero targets by 2050 in order to — from our perspective — be a national leader on carbon reduction.