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What Stevens’ Retirement Means for the Environment

Rachel Hartman has a great roundup of what conservatives are saying about the upcoming Supreme Court battle. But it’s not just on the right that Justice John Paul Stevens’ retirement is causing intense speculation. Environmentalists are also fretting about the implications of Stevens’ exit for the country’s climate struggles.

Over at Grist, Jonathan Hiskes points out three key ways in which the departure of the Court’s liberal leader could affect the environmental agenda. First and foremost, of course, is the fact that Stevens has been an “environmental rock star”:

He consistently upheld the ability of federal agencies to regulate pollution, as Dan Farber details on Legal Planet. In the influential Chevron v. NRDC (1984), he wrote the majority opinion defending government agencies’ ability to interpret ambiguous legislation, which enabled the EPA to set effective clean-air standards.

His crowning environmental achievement was writing the majority opinion in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007), which ruled that heat-trapping pollutants endanger public health and the EPA has an obligation to regulate them. (The Obama EPA is working on it.)

That latter ruling could well be the subject of contention again, as some lawmakers have insisted that any major climate legislation preempt the EPA from regulating carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. Which brings Hiskes to his second point: that this isn’t just any year for climate battles, and several major climate controversies could make their way to the Supreme Court in the immediate future:

The state of Texas has already sued the EPA for seeking to limit CO2 emissions. The National Association of Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute, and other manufacturing groups say they will do the same. Any climate action the EPA undertakes will face a torrent of litigation. Same for any climate/energy legislation, should it ever pass out of Congress. You can expect at least some of these key cases to eventually be argued in front of the highest court in the land.

And finally, there are the ramifications of an extended confirmation battle for the Senate agenda. The upper chamber has already demonstrated its utter inability to do more than one thing at a time, and with financial regulation likely next on its list and Supreme Court confirmation hearings looming, it truly might not get around to climate legislation this year — after which, assuming a Democratic loss of a few Senate seats and possibly even control of the House, the uphill road to climate action will get that much steeper.

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