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L. Delta Merner
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How the Supreme Court’s Chevron Decision Benefits Big Oil and Gas

   

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Last Friday, the Supreme Court overruled the 40-year-old Chevron doctrine, fundamentally changing the landscape of federal regulatory power. This decision, reached with a 6-3 majority led by Chief Justice John Roberts, marks a significant shift in administrative law and has profound implications for environmental regulations and climate accountability.

Ironically, the downfall of the Chevron doctrine will give Chevron and other major oil and gas corporations more latitude to slow down and block regulations, allowing them to pollute with near impunity. At the end of the day, this decision means that courts will play a more active role in interpreting regulatory statutes, undermining scientific expertise, slowing regulatory processes, and creating obstacles at a time when urgent action is needed to address the climate crisis.

The Chevron doctrine, established in the 1984 Supreme Court case Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., provided that courts should defer to federal agencies’ reasonable interpretations of ambiguous statutes. This deference allowed agencies (e.g., the EPA or FDA), staffed with experts, to interpret and implement laws within their purview effectively.

Under Chevron, when a statute was ambiguous, courts would typically side with the agency’s interpretation, recognizing the specialized expertise of agencies in their respective fields. This doctrine has played a crucial role in enabling agencies to enforce regulations on complex issues such as environmental protection, public health, and consumer safety. The ambiguity in statutes is often intentional, acknowledging that Congress isn’t equipped to design prescriptive policies across the whole suite of issues before them—let alone in a way that can evolve as science and technology evolve over time. This intentional ambiguity enables expertise to shape rulemaking as needed. During the 40 years Chevron was law, federal courts cited the doctrine more than 18,000 times.

The recent ruling arose from two cases, Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo and Relentless, Inc. v. Department of Commerce. These cases involved a dispute over a NOAA Fisheries rule requiring herring vessels to pay for onboard monitors to prevent overfishing. Lower courts upheld the rule, citing Chevron deference. However, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority saw this as an opportunity to dismantle the doctrine altogether.

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, declared that courts must now exercise their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority, rather than deferring to the agency’s reasonable interpretation. He emphasized that this change does not retroactively affect past cases decided under Chevron deference but will influence all future regulatory interpretations.

The elimination of Chevron deference significantly impacts the ability of federal agencies to enforce regulationsparticularly those related to environmental protection and climate change, as many of these regulations were crafted to be flexible in interpretation by design. Here’s how:

Increased Legal Challenges to Regulations: By removing judicial deference to agency interpretations, the ruling opens the door for increased legal challenges to regulations. Agencies will now face a higher bar in defending their rules, as courts will no longer necessarily defer to their expertise. This means that every regulation, including those aimed at reducing global warming emissions or protecting endangered species, will be subject to more inconsistent, inexpert judicial scrutiny. Under this new reality, oil and gas companies may feel more emboldened to challenge existing regulations hoping to shape the legal landscape to be more favorable for them. Successful court cases could limit the scope of future regulations.
Shift in Regulatory Power: The ruling effectively shifts power from federal agencies to the judiciary. Judges, rather than agency experts, will have the final say on the interpretation of ambiguous statutes. This change could result in less predictable and likely less scientifically informed decisions on complex environmental issues, as judges do not have the same level of expertise as agency professionals.
Slower Regulatory Process: The decision introduces a new level of difficulty into the regulatory process. Agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will need to try to anticipate every potential legal challenge alleging statutory ambiguity and prepare comprehensive justifications that can withstand unbounded judicial scrutiny. This could slow down the implementation of new regulations, as agencies might take more time to ensure their rules can survive such legal challenges. Worse, agencies may decide not to even try.
Impact on Existing and Future Regulations: While the ruling does not immediately retroactively affect regulations upheld under Chevron, it will influence future regulatory efforts. For example, regulations under the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which often rely on broad and ambiguous statutory mandates, are now vulnerable to unfavorable rulings at the hand of activist judges. This could hinder efforts to implement climate policies at the federal level.
Lobbying for Favorable Decisions: Judges will have more leeway and more need to rely on Amicus, or “Friend of the Court” briefs in writing opinions. Fossil fuel companies and their attorneys will have the incentives and funding to file such briefs aggressively. The views expressed by oil companies will have equal weight compared to agency scientists and experts. It should be noted that the plaintiffs in both cases leading to the overturning of Chevron were represented pro bono by attorneys from conservative law firms with ties to the Koch brothers.

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Chevron represents a seismic shift in administrative law with far-reaching implications for climate accountability. By reducing the power of federal agencies to interpret and implement ambiguous statutes, the ruling complicates the path forward for robust environmental action. Oil and gas corporations have long been adept at manipulating the legal system to their advantage. Just hours after the Supreme Court’s decision, corporate lobbyists began strategizing to use the ruling to their advantage, aiming to challenge and reduce regulations in climate, finance, health, labor, and technology.

By employing a range of tactics, these corporations can delay public health and environmental protections, effectively postponing climate accountability cases for years. This strategy not only prevents plaintiffs from achieving justice through the courts but also allows these companies to use the courts to delay essential regulations. During this time, they can continue their operations with minimal restrictions, further exacerbating environmental and public health issues. Overturning the Chevron doctrine underscores the need for continued advocacy and a diversity of tactics to address the pressing challenges of climate change.

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