Today the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that could cut back on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse emissions from power plants. EPA regulation of greenhouse gases is a centerpiece of President Obama’s climate plan, since he can’t expect Congress to do anything on the subject. Regulations often have big implications for innovation, since they can force the adoption of new technologies.
But in this case, no matter what the Supreme Court decides, the impact on technology—such as methods for capturing carbon dioxide from power plants—is likely to be small (see “Capturing and Storing Carbon Dioxide in One Simple Step”).
Opinions differ as to just how big a deal the case could be. Some experts, such as Jonas Monast, the director of the Climate and Energy Program at Duke University, argue that the Supreme Court is only focusing on a narrow point that won’t affect Obama’s push for new regulations on power plants.
Others say that the court could have a big impact. It might rule that the EPA doesn’t have authority to regulate greenhouse- gas emissions from power plants. If these experts are right, then the EPA may not be able to issue regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions at new and existing power plants.
But no matter how the case plays out, it probably won’t make a big difference for the development of technology. That’s because EPA regulations limiting greenhouse-gas emissions would only promote a shift from coal to natural-gas power plants. And that’s happening even without the regulations. The regulations will do little or nothing to promote carbon capture or require the use of renewables (see “EPA Carbon Regs Won’t Help Advance Technology”).
The Supreme Court could have had a big impact if it had decided to consider a broader question that petitioners had brought to it—whether the EPA was right to conclude that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases threaten human health. If the court had decided the EPA was wrong, that could have invalidated ambitious fuel economy regulations. That would take away a major incentive for innovation in the automotive industry.