During the Obama Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a rule called the “Clean Power Plan,” exercising its authority under the Clean Air Act to determine the “best system of emission reduction” for purposes of setting standards to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing electric power plants, which contributed heavily to the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. During the Trump Administration, EPA rescinded the Clean Power Plan and replaced it with the less stringent “Affordable Clean Energy” (ACE) rule, based on a new reading of the Clean Air Act that restricted the kinds of emission reduction strategies that EPA could consider. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit then struck down the repeal and the ACE rule on the ground that EPA’s new reading of the statute was unreasonable. At EPA’s request, the court stayed its action in part so that the Clean Power Rule would not go into effect. Thus, after the decision, there was no rule regulating the emissions at issue. In the meantime, the power industry had already achieved emissions reductions that the Clean Power Plan would have required over the next several years.
Nonetheless, certain states and coal industry members sought review of the court of appeals’ decision in the Supreme Court, and the Court agreed to hear the case. In their briefs, the challengers invoked the “major questions doctrine,” arguing that Congress must very clearly authorize any agency action that has great economic or political significance, and asserted that reading the Clean Air Act any more broadly than the Trump EPA read it in the ACE rule would violate this doctrine. Opposing the challengers, respondents EPA, several states and municipal governments, some electric power producers, and some nongovernmental organizations argued that there was no live case or controversy because no existing rule affects the challengers and that, in any event, the D.C. Circuit’s decision reflected the proper reading of the Clean Air Act.
Public Citizen filed an amicus brief in support of EPA and the other respondents. The brief explained that what some members of the Court refer to as the “major questions doctrine” is entirely inapplicable to this case. The Court has not established a clear-statement rule requiring express authorization of all agency decisions that have significant effects. Rather, in certain exceptional cases where the Court finds that an agency has asserted broad new authority over subjects that it has no power to regulate under a fair reading of the text and structure of its authorizing statutes given it no power to regulate, the Court will not stretch to support such authority in arguably ambiguous provisions that run counter to the overall thrust of the statutes. In that context, the Court has expressed an “expectation” that Congress should speak plainly in authorizing such major extensions of agency authority. But where, as under the Clean Air act, an agency has authority to regulate the subject at issue, Congress is not required to meet a heightened standard of clarity in guiding all important decisions the agency must make in exercising that authority.
In its opinion in June 2022, the Court held that the plaintiffs had standing and the case was not moot, despite the fact that the Clean Power Plan has been rescinded. The Court also solidified the major questions doctrine as a clear-statement rule that requires something more stringent than normal rules of statutory construction where an agency asserts broad authority over new subjects with little statutory basis. Applying the rule, the Court held that EPA lacked authority to issue the Clean Power Plan.