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Supreme Court’s ruling to limit EPA raises stakes for Maryland on climate action; groups call for Congress to act

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision limiting the EPA’s ability to rein in power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions won’t affect Maryland’s own accelerating emissions reduction goals — but makes such efforts by states all the more important in addressing the threats of climate change, advocates said.

“The importance and urgency of Maryland’s actions to fight climate change went up dramatically today,” Maryland League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Kim Coble said.

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The court’s conservative majority ruled Thursday that EPA currently doesn’t have legal authority to order power plants to limit their emissions of carbon dioxide, the byproduct of fossil fuel combustion that is responsible for the bulk of a nearly 2 degree rise in global average temperatures since 1880.

Without action by Congress, that could put out of reach the Biden administration’s aim to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade and to have an emissions-free power sector by 2035. Power plants account for roughly 30% of carbon dioxide output.

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The planet has just a few years to begin reducing its carbon emissions output to reach an international goal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

For now, “that leaves it to the states,” said Victoria Venable, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Maryland’s General Assembly adopted an accelerated greenhouse gas reduction target for the state this year — cutting emissions 60% below 2006 levels by 2031 and virtually eliminating the state’s carbon footprint by 2045. It focuses on reducing exhaust from vehicles as well as building heating and cooling systems.

The policy is in line with similar goals set by other states with Democrat-controlled legislatures.

But the high court ruling will limit EPA’s ability to prompt such actions nationwide. And the U.S. is responsible for an estimated 28% of global carbon emissions.

The case involved complaints from 19 mostly Republican-led states and coal companies that in regulating carbon emissions, EPA overreached its authority under the federal Clean Air Act, the main tool used to regulate health-harming air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.

“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,’” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, referring to an earlier case. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.”

There are three coal plants still operating in Maryland after five others have been retired over the past four years, among hundreds across the country shuttered by market forces. Maryland’s remaining plants are scheduled to convert to oil- or natural gas-fired units by 2030.

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In response to the ruling, environmental groups called for action by the EPA and Congress.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation urged EPA to issue new carbon-cutting rules “as soon as possible,” adding that limits on coal plants also are needed to help restore the health of waterways. Nitrogen pollution in the air is responsible for a third of the nitrogen pollution fouling the Chesapeake, the group said.

And Venable said there’s still hope for major investments in carbon emissions-reducing programs in budget legislation the U.S. House of Representatives passed in November. That includes more than half a trillion dollars in spending on clean energy infrastructure, electric vehicle subsidies and electrification of buildings that rely on fossil fuels for heating.

“It couldn’t be more of an important time to do that,” Venable said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.


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