Supreme Court halts Biden’s ‘good neighbor’ plan to curb smog

The Supreme Court on Thursday upended a Biden administration effort to reduce smog and air pollution wafting across state lines in the latest decision from the high court that undermined the federal government’s power to protect the environment.

The decision is a win for the Republican-led states and industry groups that challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s “good neighbor” plan, which imposed strict emission limits on power plants and industrial sources in upwind states to reduce pollution for their counterparts downwind.

While the Supreme Court’s decision on Thursday to grant a stay technically doesn’t completely scuttle the plan, it places implementation of the Biden program on hold through what will be a complicated legal fight that will almost uncertainly continue past the November election and into next year – and possibly another presidential administration.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion for a 5-4 majority. Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote a dissent, joined by the three liberal justices, that said the court was intervening too quickly without seeing the full development of the case’s record in lower court proceedings.

“Our emergency docket requires us to evaluate quickly the merits of applications without the benefit of full briefing and reasoned lower court opinions,” Barrett wrote. “Given those limitations, we should proceed all the more cautiously in cases like this one with voluminous, technical records and thorny legal questions.”

Barrett’s dissent from the rest of the conservative wing is notable. During oral arguments for the case, she and the three liberal justices had questioned whether the Supreme Court should grant the request to halt the plan given that lower courts have barely reviewed the underlying legal dispute involved.

The decision represents the latest major setback the Supreme Court has delivered to environmental regulators, as well as to President Joe Biden’s climate and environmental agenda. In 2022, the court’s conservative majority limited EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. Last year, it curbed its authority to regulate wetlands.

Biden officials and downwind states such as New York, Connecticut and Delaware warned of “dangerous ozone spikes” affecting the health of residents – particularly children and the elderly – if the court sided with Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia, the states that filed the emergency appeal.

In a statement, an EPA spokesperson said the agency was “disappointed” with Thursday’s ruling, “which will postpone the benefits that the Good Neighbor Plan is already achieving in many states and communities.” The EPA spokesperson stressed that the stay was not a final decision on whether the EPA’s smog rule was lawful, and that the stay would only remain in place while it’s being litigated in lower courts.

“The agency believes that the Good Neighbor Plan is firmly grounded in its Clean Air Act authority and looks forward to defending the merits of this vital public health protection before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals,” the EPA spokesperson said.

White House spokesperson Angelo Fernandez-Hernandez said the Biden administration will “continue to take ambitious action that protects our communities, especially those who’ve disproportionately shouldered the burden of pollution.”

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to occasionally review interstate pollution rules to ensure they align with the latest health guidelines. The Obama administration updated the standards in 2015 and states were then required to submit plans within three years showing how they would meet those new goals. Biden’s EPA strengthened the rule in March under a court-ordered deadline, after it languished without any updates during the Trump administration.

The plan’s opponents warned it could “destabilize the states’ power grids.” But the Biden administration had countered that those predictions were based on “speculative allegations” that some power plants may be required to shut down “at some future point.”

In a statement, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican, called Thursday’s Supreme Court decision “correct,” adding, “the country’s power grid is already stressed as it is, and now this administration is attempting to add more regulation that’s going to stress the grid even more.”

The Biden administration noted that many of the plan’s requirements wouldn’t go into effect until 2026 and questioned the urgent ruling from the court that the industry and GOP-led states had sought. They also noted that the Clean Air Act, initially approved by Congress in the 1960s, requires many of the steps the agency took to protect air quality in downwind states.

The latest ruling comes during a pivotal election year in which many young voters in particular are seeking climate action from the White House, and it is the first of two opinions the Supreme Court is expected to hand down this term that could have major implications for how the EPA regulates clean air and water. The second case, Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, could overturn a 1984 decision known as the Chevron deference – a legal test that gives federal agencies wide latitude to put forth regulations and compels courts to defer to agencies in many cases.

Gorsuch is widely seen as a lead advocate for overturning Chevron. He is the son of Reagan-appointed EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch, who oversaw a period of anti-environmental regulations during her tenure.

CNN’s Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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