Climate Change & Environment Supreme Court Cases

Climate change and other environmental problems extend well beyond state (and even national) borders. Thus, the federal government holds primary responsibility for this area, although it cannot directly compel states to enact and enforce federal regulatory programs. Notable federal statutes affecting the environment include:

  • Clean Water Act, which controls water pollution
  • Clean Air Act, which controls air pollution
  • Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which governs the cleanup of sites contaminated by hazardous substances
  • National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impact of their proposed actions
  • Endangered Species Act, which aims to conserve threatened and endangered plants and animals and their habitats

The Environmental Protection Agency is the main government agency in this field. Environmental law cases often require the Supreme Court to interpret federal statutes and review actions by the EPA and other agencies. Constitutional questions may arise occasionally. Since environmental protection is a relatively modern concern, most environmental law cases have arisen in the last half century. Current trends suggest that the Supreme Court may take a narrower view of EPA authority in the near future.

Below is a selection of Supreme Court cases involving climate change and the environment, arranged from newest to oldest.

Sackett v. EPA (2023)

Author: Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

The Clean Water Act extends to only those wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are waters of the United States in their own right, so that they are indistinguishable from those waters.

West Virginia v. EPA (2022)

Author: John Roberts

Congress did not grant the EPA in Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act the authority to devise emissions caps based on the generation-shifting approach that the EPA took in the Clean Power Plan.

Michigan v. EPA (2015)

Author: Antonin Scalia

The EPA strayed well beyond the bounds of reasonable interpretation in concluding that cost is not a factor relevant to the appropriateness of regulating power plants.

Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA (2014)

Author: Antonin Scalia

The EPA exceeded its statutory authority when it interpreted the Clean Air Act to require PSD (Prevention of Significant Deterioration) and Title V permitting for stationary sources based on their greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA may not treat greenhouse gases as a pollutant for the purposes of defining a major emitting facility in the PSD context or a major source in the Title V context. However, the EPA may continue to treat greenhouse gases as a “pollutant subject to regulation under this chapter” for the purposes of requiring BACT (best available control technology) for “anyway” sources.

Los Angeles County Flood Control Dist. v. NRDC (2013)

Author: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The flow of water from an improved portion of a navigable waterway into an unimproved portion of the same waterway does not qualify as a discharge of a pollutant under the Clean Water Act.

American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut (2011)

Author: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The Clean Air Act and the EPA action that the Act authorizes displace any federal common-law right to seek abatement of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants.

Coeur Alaska, Inc. v. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (2009)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

The Army Corps of Engineers, rather than the EPA, held the authority to grant permits for the discharge of processed wastewater into an Alaska lake.

Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. U.S. (2009)

Author: John Paul Stevens

An entity may qualify as an arranger under CERCLA when it takes intentional steps to dispose of a hazardous substance. Meanwhile, apportionment of remediation costs is proper when there is a reasonable basis for determining the contribution of each cause to a single harm.

U.S. v. Atlantic Research Corp. (2007)

Author: Clarence Thomas

Section 107(a) of CERCLA provides potentially responsible parties with a cause of action to recover costs from other potentially responsible parties.

Environmental Defense v. Duke Energy Corp. (2007)

Author: David Souter

The Clean Air Act does not require the EPA to interpret the term “modification” consistently in its PSD (Prevention of Significant Deterioration) regulations and NSPS (New Source Performance Standards) regulations.

Massachusetts v. EPA (2007)

Author: John Paul Stevens

Since greenhouse gases fit within the definition of “air pollutant” under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has the statutory authority to regulate the emission of these gases from new motor vehicles. Also, a litigant to whom Congress has accorded a procedural right to protect their concrete interests can assert that right in federal court without meeting all the normal standards for redressability and immediacy.

Rapanos v. U.S. (2006)

Author: Antonin Scalia

The phrase “the waters of the United States” includes only relatively permanent, standing, or continuously flowing bodies of water, rather than channels through which water flows intermittently or ephemerally, or channels that periodically provide drainage for rainfall. Moreover, only wetlands with a continuous surface connection to waters of the United States, so that there is no clear demarcation between waters and wetlands, are adjacent to these waters and covered by the Clean Water Act.

Cooper Industries, Inc. v. Aviall Services, Inc. (2004)

Author: Clarence Thomas

A private party that has not been sued under CERCLA Sections 106 or 107(a) may not obtain contribution under Section 113(f)(1) from other liable parties.

Department of Transportation v. Public Citizen (2004)

Author: Clarence Thomas

Since the FMCSA lacks the discretion to prevent the cross-border operations of Mexican motor carriers, neither the National Environmental Policy Act nor the Clean Air Act requires the FMCSA to evaluate the environmental effects of these operations.

South Florida Water Management Dist. v. Miccosukee Tribe (2004)

Author: Sandra Day O’Connor

Under the Clean Water Act, a point source from which a pollutant is discharged does not need to be the original source of the pollutant but instead need only convey the pollutant to navigable waters.

Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation v. EPA (2004)

Author: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The Clean Air Act authorizes the EPA to stop the construction of a major pollutant-emitting facility permitted by a state authority when the EPA finds that an authority's BACT (best available control technology) determination was unreasonable.

Whitman v. American Trucking Associations, Inc. (2001)

Author: Antonin Scalia

Section 109(b) of the Clean Air Act does not permit the EPA Administrator to consider implementation costs in setting NAAQS (national ambient air quality standards). Also, when conferring decision-making authority upon agencies, Congress must lay down an intelligible principle to which the person or body authorized to act is directed to conform.

Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (2001)

Author: William Rehnquist

The Clean Water Act does not allow the extension of the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers to wetlands that are not adjacent to open water.

U.S. v. Bestfoods (1998)

Author: David Souter

Only when the corporate veil may be pierced may a parent corporation be charged with derivative CERCLA liability for its subsidiary's actions in operating a polluting facility. However, a corporate parent may be held directly liable in its own right as an operator of its subsidiary's facility if it actively participated in and exercised control over the operations of the facility.

Babbitt v. Sweet Home Chapter of Communities for a Great Oregon (1995)

Author: John Paul Stevens

The definition of “harm” as an expansion of “take” in the Endangered Species Act includes habitat modifications that kill or injure wildlife.

City of Chicago v. Environmental Defense Fund (1994)

Author: Antonin Scalia

While a resource recovery facility's management activities are excluded from RCRA Subtitle C regulation, its generation of toxic ash is not.

New York v. U.S. (1992)

Author: Sandra Day O’Connor

While Congress has substantial power under the Constitution to encourage the states to provide for the disposal of the radioactive waste generated within their borders, the Constitution does not confer upon Congress the ability simply to compel the states to do so. More generally, Congress may not commandeer the states' legislative processes by directly compelling them to enact and enforce a federal regulatory program, but instead it must exercise legislative authority directly upon individuals.

Marsh v. Oregon Natural Resources Council (1989)

Author: John Paul Stevens

An agency must apply a rule of reason and prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement if there remains major federal action to occur, and if the new information will affect the quality of the human environment in a significant manner or to a significant extent not already considered.

U.S. v. Riverside Bayview Homes, Inc. (1985)

Author: Byron White

The Clean Water Act and regulations promulgated under its authority by the Army Corps of Engineers authorize the Corps to require property owners to obtain permits from the Corps before discharging fill material into wetlands adjacent to navigable bodies of water and their tributaries.

Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp. (1984)

Author: Byron White

The federal preemption of state regulation of the safety aspects of nuclear energy does not extend to a state-authorized award of punitive damages for conduct related to radiation hazards.

EPA v. National Crushed Stone Ass'n (1980)

Author: Byron White

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act does not require the EPA to consider economic capability in granting variances from its uniform BPT (best practicable control technology currently available) regulations.

Strycker's Bay Neighborhood Council v. Karlen (1980)

Author: Per Curiam

Once an agency has made a decision subject to the procedural requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, the only role for a court is to ensure that the agency has considered the environmental consequences.

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. v. NRDC (1978)

Author: William Rehnquist

The concept of alternatives in environmental impact statements under the National Environmental Policy Act must be bounded by some notion of feasibility. Common sense also teaches that the statement of alternatives cannot be found wanting simply because the agency failed to include every alternative device and thought conceivable by the mind of man. In addition, Section 553 of the APA establishes the maximum procedural requirements that courts can impose on federal agencies in conducting rulemaking proceedings. While agencies are free to grant additional procedural rights at their discretion, reviewing courts are generally not free to impose them.

Kleppe v. Sierra Club (1976)

Author: Lewis Powell

The determination of the region, if any, with respect to which a comprehensive environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act is necessary requires weighing various factors, such as the extent of the interrelationship among proposed actions and practical considerations of feasibility. Resolving these issues requires a high level of technical expertise and is properly left to the informed discretion of the responsible federal agencies.

Union Electric Co. v. EPA (1976)

Author: Thurgood Marshall

Since Congress intended that grounds of economic and technological infeasibility should be deemed wholly foreign to EPA consideration of a state implementation plan, a court of appeals reviewing an approved plan cannot set it aside on these grounds, regardless of when they are raised.

Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Co. (1907)

Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

In its capacity of quasi-sovereign, the state has an interest in all the earth and air within its domain, independent of the titles of its citizens. It is fair and reasonable for a state to demand that the air over its territory should not be polluted on a great scale, and that its forests, crops, and orchards should not be destroyed or threatened by the acts of parties beyond its control.

Missouri v. Illinois (1906)

Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The Supreme Court should only intervene to enjoin the action of one state at the demand of another state when the case is of serious magnitude, clearly and fully proved. Only such principles should be applied as the Court is prepared to maintain. (This case involved sewage-polluted water.)

Related Legal Guides: