Carbon Emissions

A Tax on the EPA’s Power: The Supreme Court and the Future of Carbon Pricing

Quinn Milligan, MJLST Staffer

As climate change becomes a topic of increasing popularity worldwide, policy makers and the legal community alike have turned their attention to fashioning appropriate mechanisms to address carbon emissions. Of the myriad proposals made in recent years, carbon pricing has come to the forefront of climate policy regimes worldwide. Although carbon pricing has been implemented in various parts of the world, the legal system of the United States presents various legal challenges.

Carbon pricing, at a simple level, is an economic tool designed to reduce carbon emissions by forcing individuals and companies to internalize the externality price of the carbon they emit.[1] Caron pricing is implemented predominantly in one of two methods: cap-and-trade systems or a carbon taxation system. A cap-and-trade system is the process of placing a “cap” on the amount of carbon (measured in tons) that can be emitted by those under the regulatory purview of the given cap-and-trade; typically companies are the target of these systems. Once the emissions cap has been set, the regulators allocate “allowances” for all or part of the total cap. Companies that emit less than their allocated cap can sell or trade their remaining allowances to other companies under the cap-and-trade regulation. In essence, the cap-and-trade system creates a monetary incentive for companies to reduce their carbon emissions.[2] In contrast, a carbon tax is much more straightforward. Carbon taxes are imposed on the emission of carbon dioxide that arises through production or consumption of fossil fuels based on the amount of carbon dioxide those activities produce.[3] The tax will be assessed per unit of emissions, typically per ton of carbon dioxide.

Both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems are designed to create an economic incentive for companies to reduce their carbon emissions in order to combat climate change at a large scale. While there are various economic arguments for and against the efficiency of both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems, there is evidence that both can be effective when well designed and administrated. Importantly, the goal of both main forms of carbon pricing is to take advantage of the financial rationality of actors in the economy and incentivize them to reduce their carbon emissions. Ultimately the policy goal behind incentivizing reduction in carbon emissions is to combat climate change by shifting the burden onto the polluters.[4]

While carbon pricing systems have proven to be an effective method of reducing carbon emissions, the legal system presents important challenges to their implementation. The most recent challenge to the ability of regulators and policy makers came from the Supreme Court’s recent decision to curtail the power of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to limit carbon emissions in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency.[5] The Supreme Court’s decision in late June of 2022 dictated that the EPA cannot put state-level caps on carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act of 1970. The Supreme Court went on to clarify that the power to decide how the U.S. would power itself lies with Congress, and decisions on emissions must come from Congress.[6] The decision represents a signal from the Supreme Court to regulatory agencies generally, not just the EPA, that regulations must arise from the powers specifically delegated by Congress to those agencies.

Previously, the EPA had been using the Clean Air Act to regulate climate change in various manners, particularly through regulation of carbon emissions. In specific, the Court found that the Clean Power Plan established under the Obama administration exceeded the regulatory power granted to the EPA by Congress under the Clean Air Act.[7] The Supreme Court further decided that the power to promulgate rules which would have transformational impacts on the economy must be specifically granted by Congress to regulatory agencies.[8] In this specific context, the Court ruled that the regulation of carbon emissions sought by the EPA would have such transformational impacts on the economy. The Court specified that any time a regulatory agency in the U.S. attempts to promulgate any rule which may have a transformational impact on the economy – which was to regulate carbon emissions and address climate change in this instance – the rule would be presumptively invalid unless Congress had already specifically authorized the agency to promulgate rules and regulations in the area.

This ruling significantly reduces the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions and climate change.[9] The importance of this decision is not so much that the EPA will never be able to regulate carbon emissions or attempt to address climate change, but instead that the accomplishment of the policy goals underlying EPA regulation will certainly be delayed. Because the majority decision emphasized that regulatory decisions of economic and political significance must be supported by clear Congressional authorization, the EPA has been thrown into a sort of stalemate. The direct finding in West Virginia v. EPA that the Clean Power Plan was not adequately supported by Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act set the EPA’s timetable for accomplishing its policy goals back years.

As many have noticed in recent years, extreme weather events have become more frequent and more severe; our climate is changing before our very eyes. One of the most ironic features of this Supreme Court decision is that the growth of the administrative state maligned by the majority opinion has directly accompanied extreme increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels the Clean Power Plan aimed to combat.

Although carbon pricing systems have shown promise in incentivizing participants in the global economy to decrease their carbon emissions, the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA certainly made it difficult for the EPA to enact any sort of carbon pricing scheme in the near future.[10] At a time when climate change is only becoming a more important issue, the Court’s decision has made the primary environmental agency in the U.S. less able to achieve policy goals that would combat it. While other countries have found success implementing carbon pricing systems, at least for the time being, that option appears unavailable in the U.S.