The five Republican members of the Supreme Court handed down a series of unexpected orders Tuesday night, halting environmental regulations that were expected to “avoid thousands of premature deaths and mean thousands fewer asthma attacks and hospitalizations in 2030 and every year beyond,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. As ThinkProgress has previously explained, these regulations “represent the most significant thing America has ever done to combat climate change.”
The justices cast their vote along party lines. All four of the Court’s Democrats voted to allow the rules to go into effect.
The Court offered no insight into its reasoning beyond its vote. Under Tuesday evening’s orders, “the Environmental Protection Agency’s ‘Carbon Pollution Emission Guidelines for Existing Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units,’ is stayed pending disposition of the applicants’ petitions for review in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and disposition of the applicants’ petition for a writ of certiorari, if such writ is sought.” In effect, this means that the rules will remain suspended until a federal appeals court rules on this challenge to the regulations, the parties challenging the rules seek Supreme Court review, and the justices decide how they wish to handle that request.
Given the complexity of this case and the Supreme Court’s schedule, Tuesday evening’s order could easily delay the rules until after President Obama leaves office — if they get to go into effect at all.
In the 2007 case Massachusetts v. EPA, Justice Anthony Kennedy broke with the other four members of the Court’s conservative bloc to join an opinion holding that the Clean Air Act permits the EPA to “regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles.” The Obama administration rules halted in this latest case, by contrast, deal with greenhouse emissions from existing power plants. Nevertheless, Kennedy’s vote in the Massachusetts case offered hope to environmentalists and to the people whose lives would be saved by the suspended regulations that he would once again side with the EPA.
The ultimate outcome of Kennedy’s vote remains uncertain. With his vote to suspend the rules, however, Kennedy casts a cloud of doubt over whether the United States of America is capable of taking steps needed to mitigate climate change.