Supreme Court ruling limiting EPA authority will not impact Oregon climate targets, laws

Oregon is among more than 20 states with its own, stricter regulations on greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector

By: - July 1, 2022 6:00 am
electric grid

Oregon’s electric utilities submitted first-ever plans for mitigating wildfire risks and protecting public safety. (Flickr)

A Thursday ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court limiting the authority of the federal Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants will have little impact in Oregon, according to the state’s environmental director. 

“Today’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court limiting EPA’s authority to regulate emissions from power plants does not directly affect the critically important work Oregon and the Department of Environmental Quality are doing to reduce carbon emissions in this state,” Richard Whitman, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, said in a statement.

He said Oregon’s climate programs “are all based on authority granted by the Oregon Legislature rather than by the U.S. Congress” and thus are not affected by the decision.

Still, it was blasted by Oregon Democrats in Congress, state leaders and environmentalists.

Oregon has some of the strictest climate legislation and greenhouse gas emission targets in the nation.

A 2020 executive order from Gov. Kate Brown mandated that state agencies develop strategies to reduce Oregon’s emissions to at least 80% of pre-1990 levels by 2050, and to transition the state’s power and transportation sectors away from fossil fuels. 

More than 20 other states also have set emission targets and passed state laws to achieve them. 

In response to the ruling, Elizabeth Merah, Brown’s press secretary, said in a statement: “Gov. Brown believes that future generations will judge us not on the fact of climate change, but by what we have done to tackle it, which is why she has made climate action a top priority in Oregon.”

U.S. Supreme Court ruling

In 2015, the Obama administration enacted the Clean Power Plan, which would have required states to phase fossil fuels out of the power sector gradually, transitioning to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Two dozen Republican states attorneys general sued the EPA over the plan in 2016, putting it on pause while the case moved through the courts. Then in 2018, a group of Democratic attorneys general filed suit against a Trump administration proposal that would have barred the EPA from regulating emissions from power plants. Neither plans were enacted. 

Thursday’s ruling addressed the Obama plan, which the Biden administration was trying to revive. The 6-3 decision limits the EPA’s authority to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions for one plant but not for plants statewide, saying a national policy is up to Congress. 

At this moment, when the impacts of the climate crisis are becoming ever more disruptive, costing billions of dollars every year from floods, wildfires, droughts and sea level rise, and jeopardizing the safety of millions of Americans, the court’s ruling is disheartening.

– Michael Regan, EPA administrator

The decision argued that the EPA does not have the power to enact the Clean Power Plan because Congress had not authorized the agency to do so. 

Michael Regan, EPA’s administrator, expressed disappointment over the decision. 

“At this moment, when the impacts of the climate crisis are becoming ever more disruptive, costing billions of dollars every year from floods, wildfires, droughts and sea level rise, and jeopardizing the safety of millions of Americans, the court’s ruling is disheartening,” he wrote.

During the last 20 years, Oregon has had 20 mega fires, burning more than 4 million acres. As of this month, more than 50% of the state is in a severe drought, according to the ​​U.S. Drought Monitor. 

Scaling down emissions

In 2016, Oregon was the first state to pass legislation eliminating coal power, eventually closing the state’s last coal plant in 2020. 

In 2021, Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission enacted the Climate Protection Program, which requires heavy polluters to pay per ton of carbon dioxide emissions over limits that will be gradually reduced until fossil fuels are phased out in 2040. Also in 2021, the state Legislature passed the Clean Energy For All Act, requiring the state’s two largest electric utilities, Portland General Electric and Pacific Power, which serve nearly 1.5 million Oregonians, to use only non-fossil fuel sources by 2040. It bans new fossil-fuel burning power plants. 

In response to the decision, Andrea Platt, a spokesperson for Portland General Electric, said the company will stay on track. 

We remain steadfastly committed to meeting the ambitious clean electricity targets.

– Andrea Platt, spokesperson for Portland General Electric

“We remain steadfastly committed to meeting the ambitious clean electricity targets outlined by HB 2021 (Clean Energy For All Act), achieving at least an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions associated with the power served to customers by 2030, reducing them further to 90% by 2035 and a 100% reduction by 2040,” she wrote.

The Legislature also adopted in 2021 two new rules that require truck manufacturers to boost their production of electric medium- and heavy-duty trucks sold in Oregon, and require new medium- and heavy-duty diesel vehicles sold in the state to emit less smog. 

In Oregon, most greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation followed by food production and heating and cooling homes and businesses, according to the Oregon Global Warming Commission. Across the U.S., transportation is the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions, followed by the power sector, according to the EPA. 

Whitman said the state will continue to lead the nation in combating climate change.

“What the court’s ruling does do, however, is to create an uneven playing field across the country, with some states shouldering the weight of responsible climate actions and others not doing so,” he said. 

State leaders, doctors, environmentalists condemn decision

Oregon U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley both issued statements blasting the court’s decision. Merkley is a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He and 190 congressional Democrats submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court supporting the EPA’s authority to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change. 

In a statement, Merkley wrote: “The American people don’t want dirty air, extreme weather and climate chaos. But that is what the right-wing Supreme Court majority is forcing on us by once again doing fossil fuel executives’ bidding, even at the expense of judicial precedent, common sense, and our shared future.”

Oregon’s Senate Democrats also released a statement:. Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, said he is dismayed at the “huge step backwards in our national fight for clean air and environmental sustainability.” He said the Legislature needs to call on Congress to pass clean energy legislation. 

The American people don’t want dirty air, extreme weather and climate chaos.

– Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon

Leaders at the Oregon Medical Association said they consider climate change a public health crisis. The president of the American Medical Association announced that the group of more than 200,000 medical professionals nationwide is “deeply disappointed” with the decision.

Jack Resneck Jr., president of the association wrote that “regulating and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is critical for combating the climate crisis and its major health implications.”

The Northwest Energy Coalition is an alliance of more than 100 environmental and social justice and advocacy organizations from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia. 

In a statement, Lauren McCloy, policy director of the coalition, wrote that “today’s Supreme Court opinion is bad, and will make it harder to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly, which is what the science says we have to do.”

McCloy said the message from the court to states is that they’re on their own when it comes to combating climate change. 

But she said, “In the absence of leadership at the federal level during the Trump administration, states doubled down on climate action, and the market has shifted to low cost, clean energy. We have no choice but to redouble our efforts at the state and regional level, and I fully expect that’s what we’ll do.”

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.