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Big Oil gets what it paid for
The Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA is a victory for the fossil fuel industry — whose fingerprints are all over it.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
First, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that uteruses can be subject to regulation, stripping bodily autonomy from hundreds of millions of people. Now, the high court is sweeping in to protect the corporations fueling the climate crisis from the so-called administrative state.
The court’s penultimate ruling this term, in West Virginia v. EPA, installs new roadblocks in the already uphill battle to preserve our climate, limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate emissions from power plants.
It’s an unabashed victory for the fossil fuel industry, which worked for decades to produce this outcome. This ruling was no coincidence: the fossil fuel industry, big business interests, and a network of dark money front groups helped organize both the legal strategy behind this case and the justices who would decide it. Here’s what you need to know.
The majority decision will hamstring the ability of the EPA to act on climate change.
The 6-3 decision from Chief Justice John Roberts struck down the EPA’s approach to regulating air pollution from existing power plants — which the conservative majority said was not explicitly authorized by Congress.
Justice Elena Kagan did not mince words in her dissent. “Today,” she wrote, “the court strips the EPA of the power Congress gave it to respond to the most pressing environmental challenge of our time. ... The court appoints itself — instead of Congress or the expert agency — the decision-maker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening.”
Karen Sokol, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, said the court’s ruling “is not talking about the economic significance of not addressing climate, it’s not talking about the lost lives, the lost livelihoods. What gets counted is the industry’s bottom line.”
Meaningful climate solutions require experts, and that’s what federal agencies provide. Yet, Sokol said, “the court has essentially said you can’t have these tools.”
The decision is the result of a decades-long corporate-led, right-wing effort to rewrite the role of government through the courts.
Polluters stand to benefit immensely from the new decision — and that’s no accident. Just as the Dobbs v. Jackson decision stripping away the constitutional right to abortion was the culmination of decades of extreme right-wing organizing, West Virginia v. EPA came from a decades-long project of dark money front groups funded by big business — in particular, Big Oil — to eliminate government regulation as we know it.
In fact, fossil fuel interests played a key behind-the-scenes role in every step of the process:
Oil money helped fund the Federalist Society, the right-wing legal organization that virtually handpicked many of the conservative justices who joined today’s ruling.
Oil money helped fund the U.S. senators who pushed for those justices’ confirmation.
Oil money backed the Republican Attorneys General Association, whose members brought West Virginia v. EPA before the Supreme Court.
Oil money was behind the Koch network and its various front groups, who filed briefs in support of the Republican attorneys general and against the EPA.
Big Oil’s strategy is to defeat climate action from all sides.
The majority ruling said that Congress, not the expert agency on environmental issues, is ultimately responsible for how we regulate power plant emissions. The only problem with that: Congress is a political body subject to endless lobbying and influence from the fossil fuel industry, whose goal is to pollute with impunity.
The federal government hasn’t dealt with climate breakdown before “largely because industry has attacked every regulation so far,” said Sokol. “Nevertheless, the court is taking this and running with it.”
As former ExxonMobil lobbyist Keith McCoy admitted on tape last year, the industry regularly meets with lawmakers from both parties to block climate action in Congress. (Oil and gas interests also meet regularly with the attorneys general who brought this case.) Of course Big Oil would think it prudent to give Congress sole authority to regulate emissions — and of course the justices they put in power would agree.
“Those justices who sit across the street from the Capitol read the newspapers and they know just as well as you or I know that Congress is broken,” said Lisa Graves, a former senior Justice Department official who is now executive director of investigative research watchdog True North Research. “They know that the fossil fuel industry has thwarted an array of reasonable efforts to try to mitigate climate change.”
“There is an enormous amount of influence from these CEOs, super wealthy people like Charles Koch who have made their fortunes from carbon, and these individuals have successfully kneecapped our ability to actually pass new, bold measures that are up to the degree of the crisis we face, which is enormous,” said Graves.
We need to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable, now more than ever.
Unfortunately, even as they’re torching the planet and our democratic institutions, oil behemoths are *still* being given a platform on major media outlets to greenwash and lie about their “commitments” to taking on climate change. Last week, in a bewildering piece of industry propaganda aired by CNBC, Exxon CEO Darren Woods got to warn the public that “society will pay a high price” if we transition away too quickly from the fossil fuels that make his company billions of dollars.
The longer we wait to make fossil fuel companies answer for their ongoing deception and efforts to obliterate climate action, the worse all of these problems will get. This latest court ruling, said Sokol, is just another indication of why the lawsuits that states, cities, and counties have filed to hold Big Oil accountable for fraud and damages are so vitally important.
“These suits are even more urgent,” Sokol said, “in the sense that whereas we have the [U.S. Supreme Court] protecting an industry that has wrought a significant amount of harm as a result of a longstanding disinformation campaign, [climate liability lawsuits] are one lever that’s holding industry accountable.”
It’s no surprise then that, as those climate accountability lawsuits move closer to trial, Big Oil companies — and the Republican attorneys general who do their bidding — are urging their friends at the Supreme Court to again step in and bail them out. That’s a fight for another day, but it’s one that’s now more important than ever.
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