The Case for a Strong Environmental Protection Agency 

A decision is currently pending in the Supreme Court which could turn out to be the most pivotal environmental law case in American history. On Nov. 29, the court agreed to hear appeals of an opinion from the U.S. Appeals Court for the D.C. Circuit which granted broad authority to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The opinion essentially allowed the EPA to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions of power plants under the Obama administration’s Clean Air Act. The appeal, mostly led by coal companies and states with strong mining industries, like West Virginia and North Dakota, argues that the current D.C. Circuit interpretation grants the EPA too much regulatory power over the shaping of the nation’s power grid and that such regulations will lead to inefficiency in the market.

So what’s the right move here? Well I think a single clear path might not exist. The court will most likely rule based on whether or not Congress, via legislation like the Clean Air Act, has the authority to delegate such sweeping powers to a federal agency with a mandate to enforce its will nationwide. That debate will have to be saved for a separate commentary article, so I will instead ask, what is best for the environment, for people and for the country?

This case comes during a moment where global climate change is receiving widespread media attention. The Biden administration is attempting to pass a stripped down version of its infrastructure bill to combat climate change in the U.S. At the same time, global leaders meet in Glasgow for the United Nations Climate Change Conference to lay out global commitments towards carbon neutrality and other climate mitigation strategies. These leaders are likely to make many broad pledges for climate action, without actually making any tangible commitments. 

Even so, the government is a necessary player in this issue. I have pretty strong libertarian tendencies when it comes to the conversations surrounding government power, so this may be one of the few times you find me arguing for maintaining robust levels of government regulation. However, why, then, if governments around the world are failing to take meaningful action, would I advocate for maintaining strong government regulation over the environment? It’s because I’m scared of the lack of incentive to conserve when companies like those which have petitioned for these appeals, such as the North American Coal Corporation and Westmoreland Mining Holding L.L.C., have free reign to degrade the environment in the pursuit of cheap energy. 

Allowing the EPA to mandate shifts away from fossil fuels to begin the green transformation of our energy grid is not the type of government overreach which restricts the personal freedoms of individuals. Instead, it is the kind that interrupts the ability of large corporations to destroy our environment, despite the knowledge that they will have to make green shifts of their own at some point down the line in order to stay profitable and competitive. When it comes to preserving the environment, the government has an important role to play. 

You might say, well, maybe it’s good for the environment; but what about the miners and workers in the fossil fuel industry? This always complicates the question, and rightfully so. However, the environmental impacts of fossil fuel extraction are most often felt by the very communities which rely on the industry for their wellbeing. According to a report published in the magazine Science on the effects of mountaintop removal mining, a technique used to extract coal, the rates of mortality, lung cancer and heart, lung and kidney disease are all higher in communities in close proximity to mines in West Virginia. 

While the decision will, of course, come down to the constitutionality of Congress granting the EPA such grand authority, rolling back the EPA’s ability to force a shift to renewable energy will embolden energy companies and increase incentives for mining corporations to continue their extraction and degradation of the environment. Allowing these companies to act unchecked will not only make current global climate mitigation targets harder to hit, but will also affect the health of some of America’s most vulnerable communities.