Supreme Court Limits EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Regulating Ability

12:03 minutes

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This week, in its final round of opinions for the term, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress had not explicitly given the Environmental Protection Agency the power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants under the terms of the Clean Air Act. 

“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day.’ But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme in Section 111(d). A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts in the majority opinion in the case, West Virginia v. EPA

 The ruling could hinder efforts globally to combat climate change, and could also affect regulations issued by other federal agencies dealing with “major questions” that would dramatically affect the economy.

Timothy Revell, deputy U.S. Editor at New Scientist, joins Ira to talk about the decision and other stories from the week in science, including new studies of the canine evolutionary tree, a look back at 10 years of the CRISPR gene-editing technique, the launch of the CAPSTONE mission, and what our nose can tell us about potential relationships.

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Segment Guests

Tim Revell

Tim Revell is Deputy United States Editor for New Scientist in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, scientists upping their climate protests to the point of getting arrested and a look at a failing wheat crop in Kansas. But first, news this week that ties in both of those stories as the Supreme Court issues a ruling that has the potential of limiting the EPA’s ability to regulate emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from power plants. The 6-3 ruling in the case West Virginia v. EPA was a win for industry and some conservative states and could have larger repercussions on the ability of other agencies to regulate on major issues. Joining me now to talk about that and other stories of the week in science is Tim Revell, deputy US editor at New Scientist. Welcome back to Science Friday, Tim.

TIM REVELL: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: OK, walk us through this ruling from the Supreme Court. What did they actually say?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, so it’s a bit intricate, this one. And my New Scientist colleague, James Dinneen, he wrote a brilliant explainer on this yesterday. Effectively, the case boils down to who has the legal authority to curb emissions from power plants. And it starts back in the 1960s with the Clean Air Act that was passed by Congress, which gave the EPA the power to enforce regulations to improve air quality. And then fast forward to 2015. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan used those powers to set guidelines around carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

But then that never came into force because 22 states thought that overstepped the mark so they sued. However, before the Supreme Court issued a ruling the Clean Power Plan was actually replaced by President Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which rolled back these protections. However, then a different group of states sued and the Affordable Clean Energy Rule was blocked by a federal court.

So if you’re following us so far, these blockages effectively put everything back to ground zero. So we’re in a place where President Biden wanted to use the EPA powers to try and curb emissions as he saw fit, but hadn’t yet done so. But then a number of coal companies and coal-producing states, including West Virginia, then petitioned the Supreme Court’s decision on Trump’s rule to reconsider the federal court’s decision. So that’s where we are now. That’s the case that they’ve issued a decision on.

IRA FLATOW: So the ruling isn’t that the EPA cannot regulate CO2. It’s just that this one section of the Clean Air Act can’t automatically be interpreted to give them that power.

TIM REVELL: Yeah, it’s about how much power it gives. And the ruling effectively says that the EPA can’t make sweeping regulations for power plant emissions. And one thing that was on the table that now isn’t is some sort of cap and trade system, where power plants could only emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide and the EPA could set that across the board. They’ll still have the power to set controls for individual power plants, but that’s obviously a much less wholesale power than potentially doing that across the board.

IRA FLATOW: I see. So how big a deal is this for trying to scale back carbon emissions?

TIM REVELL: Well, the effects are big, but perhaps not quite as big as some had initially feared. So electricity production in the US is the second largest source of greenhouse emissions behind transportation. So it is a big deal. And the Biden administration wants to make electricity generation carbon-free by 2035. And so this ruling absolutely limits the possibilities of doing that. And President Biden described it as a devastating decision yesterday.

But Congress potentially can still pass legislation to help achieve these goals, or it could even explicitly grant the EPA the power that the Supreme Court says it currently doesn’t have. The problem is, politically, that seems unlikely to happen at the moment.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, Congress isn’t doing a whole lot of passing of anything these days. Let’s move on to a space story that has sort of been lost in the haze of all the political news that’s been coming out this week. And that’s the launch of a small spacecraft called Capstone, a launch towards the moon, opening up sort of a new era of moon exploration, correct?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, this is super exciting. It’s really nice to have something to look forward to as it makes its journey towards the moon. So Capstone blasted off from the Mejia Peninsula in New Zealand on Tuesday this week. And as you say, it’s now on its way to the moon. Over the next few days, it’s going to be performing a few little course corrections, and then it will be on the trajectory that it needs to take to actually reach the moon, which it plans to do by mid-November.

And then once it gets there, it will then go into this pretty peculiar orbit, which ranges from just 1,600 kilometers above the moon at its nearest point and then 70,000 kilometers at its furthest point.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s like a big egg-shaped kind of orbit. What is the reason for that?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, so it is really strange. And all of this is part of the Artemis program, which ultimately it aims to put a man and the first woman on the moon by 2025. And so this orbit is a bit of a test run for what’s to come. One of the key parts of the Artemis program is the Lunar Gateway Space Station. And this is a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency that’s due to launch in 2025. And it’s going to be using this same peculiar orbit.

And the idea is that if you have an orbit where you get a bit closer to the moon and then you’re a bit further away, you can use that to your advantage. So when you’re closer, you can send down landers, rovers, and astronauts. And when you’re a bit further away, that’s a good point to then head back to Earth or intercept spacecraft on its way in. But an orbit like this hasn’t really been tested before. So one of the main objectives for Capstone is to test that it really will work.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and so this is part of that bigger plan where there’s going to be sort of a permanent orbiting space station that will use this orbit and then land people on the moon.

TIM REVELL: Yeah. That is the plan. And NASA’s worked it out. They’ve done the maths. And the hope is that this orbit will work because it’s in a nice balance between the gravity of the moon and the gravity of Earth. But you don’t want to send your space station to go and test it out. You want to try something a bit smaller first. And so that’s a big part of Capstone.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I get that. I get that. We have a long history of testing stuff out. And what’s also interesting about this mission is that the launch is done by a private space firm and wasn’t anywhere near Cape Canaveral, right?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, so it was in New Zealand. And quite a lot of this project has been done by private companies. The rocket, quite a lot of the control systems– and this is a real big difference. If you look back to the Apollo missions, when NASA first went to the moon, that was all done by NASA in-house pretty much. And now, you’re seeing a very large portion of the technology and also the software being outsourced to private companies.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s move on to an anniversary. This week marks the 10th anniversary of a technology that has taken biology by storm. And I’m talking about, of course, CRISPR. Tell us about that.

TIM REVELL: Yeah, so it’s happy birthday to CRISPR this week. And lots of outlets have been looking at what’s CRISPR done over the last 10 years. How did it get there in the first place? And what does the future hold? You’ll know CRISPR as this gene editing technique that’s been used for everything now from creating gene-edited tomatoes that are resistant to drought to attempting to alter genes in people that cause diseases. And it was just such a big breakthrough and has immediately been applicable in so many different situations. I think it’s quite hard to even comprehend that it’s only 10 years old.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because people were expecting and are expecting very big things from CRISPR.

TIM REVELL: Yeah, so what it really allows is researchers to edit DNA. And key to this are these proteins called CAS proteins that are found in bacteria and help defend against viruses. And these proteins can be programmed to find a particular sequence of DNA and then either edit it in one way or another. And so this technique is extremely versatile and can be used in many, many different situations. It’s also really cheap, but it’s also raised ethical questions and it did so pretty early on about the potential applications and possibilities.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, one of those big questions that’s always raised when we talk about gene editing is, what could we do with it for use in people? Could you gene edit a person from the very beginning?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, so even before CRISPR, that was an ethical debate that people would have. And then CRISPR really turbocharged that. And then in 2018, it stopped being a theoretical discussion and actually became a practical one when, very controversially, He Jiankui, a biophysicist in China edited the genes of human embryos to have resistance to HIV, but then implanted those into two women which led to the birth of three children in Shenzhen, China. And that was widely condemned. It was really early on for CRISPR. We didn’t know the safety of potentially doing that. And he actually went to prison for performing that. But it really put into practical focus the power of CRISPR as a technique.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move onto some less controversial biological news. And I’m talking about new findings on where modern domestic dogs came from. Interesting.

TIM REVELL: Yeah, this is really interesting. So it’s pretty much consensus at this point that modern domesticated dogs descend from Eurasian gray wolves from at least 15,000 years ago. But the story of exactly when and exactly where they were domesticated is still a bit of a mystery. And so researchers have looked at the DNA from the skeletal remains of 72 ancient wolves from Europe Siberia and North America. And some of these were up to 100,000 years old. And the researchers compared the ancient genomes to the genomes of early and modern day dogs to see if any of these wolves were more closely related to them, which would give us a hint of their origins.

IRA FLATOW: And so how clear is the evolutionary trail here?

TIM REVELL: They didn’t find a smoking gun, which would have been a wolf that was very genetically similar to modern day dogs. But what they did find was, you could say, maybe like one suspicious looking gun and another one that was a little bit warm. And they found that modern dogs are most similar to ancient wolves in Siberia, suggesting one possible origin, but also that there was a link to a ancient dog in the Middle East from around 7,000 years ago.

IRA FLATOW: Two dogs.

TIM REVELL: Two dogs. Yeah, so this does throw a bit of shade into exactly how we should interpret this. So one interpretation is that dogs were domesticated in two different locations and then mixed. The other is that they emerged just once and then later bred with this other wolf population. So it seems that there could be two origins for modern day dogs, or it could be a case of some mixing later on.

IRA FLATOW: Love it. Finally, let’s talk about the importance of smell in our relationships. Something we kind of suspect, don’t we?

TIM REVELL: Yeah, I really love this story. My colleague at New Scientist, Alice Klein, reported on this week. And it’s about when you meet someone and you just click. And this study suggests that, well, maybe smell could be a part of that. And so in the experiment, the team recruited 20 pairs of same sex, non-romantic friends. And people who said that when they first met, they clicked straight away.

And then the team used this very imaginatively named device for analyzing odors called an electronic nose to sniff the t-shirts worn by each of the participants. And you’ve got to think, there’s a grad student somewhere sighing with relief that they didn’t have to be the person sniffing those t-shirts. Anyway, so this electronic nose, it found that body odor was more similar between friend pairs than between random pairs.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Maybe that’s where the whole idea of we have instant chemistry comes from. It’s the chemistry of your nose.

TIM REVELL: Yeah, absolutely. And people– you often have friends that are similar to you in many different ways. So perhaps smell is just another one of them.

IRA FLATOW: And there you have it, Tim. Thank you for taking time to be with us today. Always great stuff.

TIM REVELL: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Tim Revell, deputy US editor at New Scientist.

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