On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court released a ruling in the West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency case, restricting the federal agency’s power to regulate carbon emissions. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown was quick to say that the decision will not deter efforts to curb carbon emissions and address climate change at the state level. We hear more specifics from Greer Ryan, the clean buildings policy manager for Climate Solutions.


Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Geoff Norcross: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Geoff Norcross in for Dave Miller. On Thursday the U.S. Supreme Court released an opinion that will have wide-ranging effects on the federal government’s ability to regulate, well, probably lots of things, but notably greenhouse gas emissions. The majority conservative justices ruled the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants because Congress has not specifically given it that authority. For reaction we’re turning now to Greer Ryan, policy manager for Climate Solutions. That’s a Pacific Northwest nonprofit devoted to advancing clean energy solutions for the climate crisis. Greer Ryan, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Greer Ryan: Hi, thank you for having me.

Norcross: Your executive director, Gregg Small, wrote an article about this ruling titled ‘No silver linings. This is just awful.’ I can guess your reaction, but I’m going to ask it anyway. What do you think of the ruling?

Ryan: I think that it’s right. There’s just really dire consequences for any roll back or step back in climate progress when we’re already seeing real climate harms day to day here in Oregon and across the country. But that being said, there’s still a lot of reason for hope and a lot of opportunity for progress, here in the Pacific Northwest in particular. I think we’re now turning to what can we all do?

Norcross: What can we all do on a state by state level probably. This decision came from a case in West Virginia that covers emissions from coal-fired power plants. We don’t have any of those in Oregon. The last one closed in 2020. So why should we be concerned?

Ryan: That’s right. I think, for one, we should be concerned about any federal step backs because climate is not a regional or local problem. It is a global problem, and what we do here impacts communities across the country and the world. Same with the federal level. We really need progress at all levels of government right now in order to avoid the worst harms of the climate crisis moving forward. That being said, you’re right, we’re not going to have coal here in this region. We already are on a path to 100% clean energy, getting off of fossil fuels of all kinds in our electricity sector here in Oregon, which is great. But we still are facing big, big barriers to meaningful climate progress in other sectors that we need to point to and focus on.

Norcross: Such as…

Ryan: Such as our building and transportation sectors, which are the two worst carbon emitting sectors in our state. Any step back really just further puts the pressure on all of us to make sure that we are, as you said, doing as much at the state level and locally as possible.

Norcross: This ruling is limited to federal agencies. State regulators say they are committed to staying on the path that you laid out, the path toward a cleaner energy future. What do you see the implications of this decision being in Oregon and our efforts at the state level?

Ryan: I think that it’s great that our leaders have committed to continuing climate progress moving forward. I do think we’ve already fallen behind a bit. We’re already behind schedule in some ways for reducing emissions in Oregon and nationwide. What we need is political power. We need legislators, and then utility regulators to really take up the mantle now that we, I think, have some more evidence that we can’t rely on the feds exclusively to make these moves for us. So this is in some ways, and I’m not the only one to say this of course, but just more evidence that states need to lead.

Norcross: You mentioned that we’ve hit some roadblocks on the way toward the clean future that you envision. What kind of roadblocks are you talking about?

Ryan: I think what we’ve seen is a pivot in some ways from maybe coal plants to a real focus on so-called bridge fuel of methane, or natural gas. The gas industry, the oil industry, still hold a lot of power in this region and across the country. We’ve seen opposition language to climate action that tries to placate folks into thinking that we’re actually on track or that somehow we can trust oil and gas companies to help us reach our climate goals. That kind of opposition, that kind of barrier, acts to prevent real climate policy or smart regulations from being adopted in Oregon and elsewhere. I think that’s maybe one of the biggest barriers that we’re facing.

Norcross: Can you talk about the kind of work that your organization, Climate Solutions, does in this area of carbon emissions, just so I can understand the work that you do?

Ryan: Yeah, absolutely. Climate Solutions is a relatively small regional nonprofit. But we, I think, pack a punch and try to do work at the state level in Oregon and Washington on climate related policies having to do with the electricity sector, the building sector and the transportation sector. We also do some support work on local and more regional projects as well, but it’s all about trying to make sure that everybody has access to clean, affordable, healthy solutions. One focus right now for me is encouraging the adoption of electric heat pumps, which provide both heating and cooling. So, that kind of thing in Oregon and in Washington.

Norcross: Do you see this ruling from the Supreme Court yesterday somehow hampering or getting in the way of that work?


Ryan: I don’t see it as doing that. I don’t think it extends that far, from what I understand. I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve been tracking what some really smart lawyers out there have been saying, and it does seem like at this point it’s limited. But I’ve also heard that this may be a harbinger of things to come. We might have more rulings down the line that try to further limit this kind of action, and I think that would be a huge problem. We’re hoping the court will distinguish this case from other potentially broader regulations in the future.

Norcross: However other federal agencies do have a hand in environmental policy in Oregon: Fish and Wildlife Service is a huge one, Bureau of Land Management, maybe the Department of Energy. What do you think this decision from the U.S. Supreme Court will mean for their influence on environmental policy here?

Ryan: That’s true. I think it has potential I suppose to limit other agencies, but at this point it seems like it is limited to EPA’s regulation of stationary sources of emissions like power plants. So again, I would say probably a question for the lawyers out there. But I’m still hopeful that the overreach for this case won’t extend so much further that states and state agencies which are not under federal jurisdiction can continue to regulate moving forward.

Norcross: Do you see power companies seizing on this ruling here in the Pacific Northwest or other places of the country for that matter? I mean taking it as an opportunity to change how they operate?

Ryan: Potentially. Although there’s really not the economics behind them to try to, for instance, bring coal back. To try to advocate for coal generation in the Pacific Northwest, I think, would be a terrible mistake on behalf of many power companies. I don’t think they’re looking to do that. It is cheaper to generate electricity with renewables than basically all fossil fuels and generally cheaper by the day. I think that we’re just not on a path, even with this rule change, for that to happen. I do see some risk of companies taking advantage of the fact that there are some back slides, this step back, to maybe point to the likelihood of what future regulation could bring or to try to cast some doubt on what future regulations could do to benefit communities, which would be a shame. But I think we all have to be steadfast in our commitment to climate action regardless of this particular court decision.

Norcross: Greer, what do you think it means for national climate goals if more climate regulatory decisions are happening state by state?

Ryan: I think it might complicate things a bit, of course, but we’ve already been seeing states be the leaders on climate action in many ways. There are, I will say, more avenues for the federal government to still work on climate even with this ruling. The Biden Administration could push for the Defense Production Act, as we’ve seen some signs that he’ll do, to develop more clean energy technologies to make sure that our economy is moving forward in a way that supports a just transition. The EPA has other tools in their tool belt, along public health lines and otherwise, to regulate greenhouse gasses from power companies and other polluting industries. So I don’t think that we should give up all hope, and we should keep the pressure on the federal side of things as well. But it is definitely a setback. I don’t want to sugarcoat it. We have no time to waste when it comes to climate action. That the highest court in the land would take it upon themselves to go out of their way to take this case on just to take us a step back is a real serious disappointment.

Norcross: This is an election year, and we’re electing a new governor here in Oregon. There are important legislative races, too. What political implications do you think this decision will have here at the state level?

Ryan: I’m really glad you brought that up. I think it’s critical that we elect climate leaders moving forward. We have some really important policy decisions to make at the legislature in the next few years. And then we have a big gubernatorial election for our next governor. It is – I can’t stress this enough – so critical that we elect a climate champion governor in the next cycle: somebody who will make sure that our agencies are on track to meet the ambitious goals the state has in place already. That’s to set the pathway to do that in a way that protects communities, gets us there as quickly as possible and hopefully avoids real risk of delay if we don’t act.

Norcross: Many states have different thoughts on this question of climate regulation and climate emissions. And it’s different from region to region. How in line is Oregon with the rest of the West Coast, with California and Washington, when it comes to reducing carbon emissions? Are we working well together?

Ryan: Yeah, I think in some ways Oregon’s right alongside our neighboring states in the sense that we have a 100% clean electricity bill, as I mentioned. Governor Brown enacted one of the most aggressive executive orders on climate that requires emissions to be reduced from transportation fuels and methane gas industries by 90% by 2050. We have some really ambitious goals that keep us side by side with our neighboring states, but I will say that California and Washington are a little bit further along in policies that help implement those goals. So it would be great for us to move a bit further in making sure that we have widespread incentives for getting our homes and our businesses and our transportation systems to be as clean and healthy and affordable as possible. I think looking to California and other states like New York is a good way to figure out how we can get there.

Norcross: What do you hope individual Oregonians will take away from the ruling and from all of this in terms of their own role in combating climate change?

Ryan: I think that there’s a lot of focus on individual action, of course, and skepticism of it as well. But I think everyone in Oregon, because it is such a politically active place, really does have a great opportunity to get involved in making sure that we elect climate champions, whether that’s door knocking or otherwise. Also pushing for smart policies at the local and state level: We’ve got some great local policies coming up in Portland and in Eugene to try to tackle how cities can move a little bit faster than states. So I think tapping into local environmental or energy justice organizations that are working on this, volunteering your time if you can, or otherwise your labor, I think is always great. But then just making sure you get out and vote with climate in mind is critical for all of us.

Norcross: Yeah, but for Oregonians who may be looking and seeing a federal court system that is not friendly to environmental regulation – maybe the next Congress won’t be very friendly, maybe the next president won’t be very friendly – what message do you have for individual Oregonians who may be despairing over this decision from the U.S. Supreme Court and may be thinking, ‘why even bother?’

Ryan: Well, I think the worst thing we could do is throw our hands up and give up at this point. We are seeing Oregonians die from heat waves, from wildfires, losing property. We’re all suffering from worse air quality. But we’re already seeing really great examples of how state and local efforts are working. A couple examples to throw out there: This summer so many Oregonians are receiving high efficiency electric heat pumps for cooling, and that’s thanks in large part to policy that passed just this last session, the Emergency Heat Relief Bill, and to environmental justice organizations like Verde and others that are helping to deploy these systems to people who need it the most. We’re also seeing the Portland Clean Energy Fund ramp up and be implemented, which provides a lot of local community-based solutions to the climate crisis. I think the more we see these solutions on the ground, the more I at least feel hopeful that Oregon can continue on and continue to act on this to create more resilient and healthy systems for everyone, regardless of what our federal courts decide to do. But hopefully, Oregon as an example can help to drive federal progress as well.

Norcross: Greer Ryan, thanks for this. I appreciate it.

Ryan: Yeah, thanks so much.

Norcross: Greer Ryan is the clean buildings policy manager for Climate Solutions. That’s a Northwest based nonprofit focused on advancing clean energy solutions to the climate crisis.

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