What the Supreme Court’s greenhouse gas ruling could mean for Georgia

Experts say ruling is unlikely to stop utilities’ shift away from coal, but could lead to new challenges to existing environmental regulations

In one of the most consequential climate change cases in years, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority issued an opinion Thursday reining in the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to use a decades-old air pollution law to push power plants to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

A quarter of all heat-trapping gas emissions in the U.S. come from power generation, and Georgia clean energy advocates said the ruling will make the task of curbing emissions more difficult.

“By hobbling the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling today has gravely hamstrung the United States’ progress to taking swift and necessary action to address climate change,” Frank Rambo, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement.

ExploreGeorgia news about climate change from the AJC

Others breathed a sigh of relief that the court, at least for now, did not deliver the crippling blow to federal regulatory authority some had feared.

Legal experts said the decision ramps up pressure on Congress to pass major climate legislation, which it has failed to do for decades. They also warned the court’s decision could open the door to challenges to other environmental regulations, with potential implications in Georgia.

“There’s always an enormous wave of regulatory litigation happening, but this is going to have to get incorporated into it,” said Adam Orford, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s School of Law who teaches climate and environmental law. “We’re going to see, I think, some major reductions in the creativity that agencies — not just the EPA — can have, and their regulatory flexibility will be much less.”

The ruling comes as scientists continue to warn that the window to drawdown greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change is rapidly closing.

Meanwhile, many electric utilities, like Georgia Power, are already planning to shut down their remaining coal-fired power plants. To replace that lost generation capacity, the company is planning to lean more on natural gas and renewable sources, like solar, as well as nuclear power from Plant Vogtle, once the two long-delayed new units near Augusta come online.

Georgia Power said it was reviewing the court’s decision, but did not say whether it would change the company’s plans to shift away from coal. But its parent, Southern Company, has pledged to meet a net zero emissions goal by 2050.

Georgia Power executives have said recently that it makes little financial sense to keep its coal plants running. In an April hearing in front of state regulators over its plans to generate electricity for the next 20 years, Jeffrey Grubb, Georgia Power’s director of resource policy and planning said, “We just don’t see a lot of positives in the future for the coal fleet.”

Oglethorpe Power, a cooperative that serves smaller electric utilities across the state, said in a statement that it was still reviewing the ruling. However, it said it concurred with a statement issued by the industry trade group the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which praised the court’s move to rein in EPA authority.

Bryan Jacob, the director of the solar program at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said he doesn’t expect the Supreme Court decision to change utilities’ plans in Georgia in the short-term.

“Regulations are not what’s driving utility planning in Georgia right now,” Jacob said. “It’s mainly economics that are driving coal retirements and customer demand that’s driving the shift to clean energy, like solar.”

Orford said that the ruling reflects a seismic shift in how the court views the boundaries of federal regulatory authority. That, he said, could lead to a flood of new cases calling into question the scope of other long-standing environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act, which Georgia has challenged in the past.

“This confirms a new way of reviewing government regulation,” Orford said. “Every government regulation — every single one, but especially the big ones — are going to have to be considered and reviewed under these new standards.”