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Supreme Court unanimously overrules Biden environmental policy

 May 26, 2023

The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a significant verdict on Thursday, leading to the downsizing of the federal government's authority to regulate bodies of water. The ruling, acting as an obstruction to a recently instituted policy of the Biden administration, is notably pertinent to landowners and industry groups.

Justice Samuel Alito represented the majority, disagreeing with the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) expansive interpretation of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS). The case was rooted in the EPA's enforcement of the Clean Water Act (CWA) from 1972, which prevented Idaho residents Michael and Chantell Sackett from constructing their homes near a wetland, as reported by Fox News.

The EPA ordered the Sacketts to restore the site, threatening penalties of over $40,000 per day. The EPA classified the wetlands on the Sacketts' lot as 'waters of the United States' because they were near a ditch that fed into a creek, which fed into Priest Lake, a navigable, intrastate lake. The Sacketts sued, alleging that their property was not waters of the United States.

President Joe Biden expressed discontent with the ruling, stating it "upends the legal framework that has protected America's waters for decades." In a statement reported by NBC News, he asserted that the decision "defies the science that confirms the critical role of wetlands in safeguarding our nation's streams, rivers, and lakes from chemicals and pollutants."

Defining Waters of the United States

The Supreme Court concluded that the federal government's definition of WOTUS must be limited to a water source exhibiting a "continuous surface connection" with major bodies of water. Although the court was unanimous on this point, the judges were divided 5-4 concerning the precise method of defining water sources.

Justice Alito articulated the majority opinion, asserting that the application of the CWA  to wetlands distinct from other covered “waters of the United States would considerably broaden the existing statute that defines 'navigable waters' as 'waters of the United States and adjacent wetlands.'"

This ruling, welcomed by Republican legislators and associations representing landowners, follows the finalization and implementation of a new WOTUS regulation by the EPA a few months ago.

The Controversial WOTUS Regulation

On the last working day of 2022, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers clandestinely approved the WOTUS regulation, scheduling its implementation for March. Following the announcement, EPA Administrator Michael Regan declared the rule as one safeguarding the nation's waters.

The regulation permitted the federal government to control wetlands, lakes, ponds, streams, and "relatively permanent" waterways. It largely mirrored a pre-2015 environmental rule from the Obama era to curb water pollution. The rule marked the most extensive interpretation of which water sources demand protection under the CWA.

Reactions and Implications

Industry groups, Republican lawmakers, and numerous states criticized the regulation, viewing it as a case of federal overreach. In response, they called for its withdrawal.

In April, a federal judge supported a request from 24 states and several trade groups to halt the rule's implementation. Both the House and Senate concurred in rejecting the regulation.

"Today, the Supreme Court sent a loud and clear warning shot to the Biden administration about its attempts to overregulate the lives of millions of Americans," said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

"By rejecting the 'significant nexus' test, the Court protected America's farmers, ranchers, builders, and landowners from overreach under the Clean Water Act, and ruled President Biden's recent WOTUS rule goes too far," Capito added.

Support for the Court's Decision

Similarly, Congressional Western Caucus Chairman Dan Newhouse (R-WA), expressed satisfaction with the ruling, endorsing it as a victory for "the Constitution, the American people, and our freedoms." He further urged the EPA to retract its WOTUS regulation officially.

The Waters Advocacy Coalition, a farmers group, lauded the Supreme Court's ruling for preserving water protections and providing clear guidelines. The group observed that the ruling disrupts the Biden Administration's extensive WOTUS rule, marking an end to years of attempts to expand federal power over private lands.

Impact on the Biden Administration

The decision by the Supreme Court is a clear challenge to the Biden administration's environmental policy. In essence, the ruling restricts the authority of the federal government to regulate water bodies, implying a notable setback for one of the key environmental strategies under President Biden.

The federal climate rules have had a rough year, Politico reported. Last year, the Supreme Court curtailed the range of regulatory measures available for the federal government to manage greenhouse gas emissions from the multitude of power plants across the nation.