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The Supreme Court curbs the EPA's power to protect the environment

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden came into office offering major climate promises. At the U.N. summit in Glasgow last year, Biden said the U.S. would lead the world in making rapid greenhouse gas reductions.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This is the decade that will determine the answer, this decade. The science is clear. We only have a brief window left before us.

MARTINEZ: The goal has already hit major roadblocks. As NPR's Scott Detrow reports, yesterday's Supreme Court ruling makes it even tougher.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Last fall, on the way to that summit, Biden was trying to get a deal in place. He wanted the largest climate legislation in U.S. history. But talks with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin had stalled. And in Scotland, Biden faced doubts.

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BIDEN: There's a reason for people to be worried. I'm worried. I'm worried if we don't continue to move forward and make the kind of progress we're now making that it's going to - I mean, we throw into jeopardy the prospect that we're going to be able to keep the temperature from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius.

DETROW: Since then, that historic climate legislation has gone from stalled to dead. Biden has found himself calling for more oil drilling, not less, due to global shortages caused by the Russia-Ukraine war. And global greenhouse gas emissions shot to an all-time high in 2021. Then yesterday, the Supreme Court dealt Biden's aggressive climate agenda another blow. It said the Environmental Protection Agency had previously gone too far when it tried to shift the American power sector away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy. In a statement, Biden said it was devastating.

LEAH STOKES: You know, this was a really bad decision today, but it was not as bad as it could have been.

DETROW: Leah Stokes is a climate and energy expert and a professor at UC Santa Barbara.

STOKES: The fact is, the Biden administration still has the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases.

DETROW: That's how the White House views it, too. Most of the administration's authority to regulate power plants remains. Emissions regulations on cars and trucks are still in place, too. But the court also sent clear signals about future rulings. Nina Mendelson is a law professor at the University of Michigan.

NINA MENDELSON: Far beyond the Clean Air Act, this decision is a broader threat to the federal government's ability to protect the environment or public health or consumer safety.

DETROW: That's because for a long time, Congress had given agencies the power and independence to act flexibly as new challenges arise. Now the court is saying Congress needs to give more specific instruction. Biden said in a statement today that, quote, "our fight against climate change must carry forward." Leah Stokes hasn't given up.

STOKES: I feel like climate change is a knife fight, you know? It's never going to be easy. We are trying to wrangle a massive industry that has bought and paid for the Republican Party and, increasingly, the Supreme Court.

DETROW: The ruling puts even more pressure on the White House to reach a deal on some sort of climate bill. Manchin, who killed the previous legislation, has been in serious talks with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. But yesterday, Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin didn't sound too upbeat about it.

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DICK DURBIN: To his credit, Senator Schumer, much more optimistic than myself, continues to work with that senator from West Virginia to see if there is any common ground. So perhaps before the end of the year, they'll deliver this miraculous bill.

DETROW: With a hostile judiciary lurking and a possible Republican congressional takeover looming, it may be their best bet.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.