Landmark Supreme Court ruling in Chevron case could curb environmental protections in California

Photo: A drone view of the Chevron Richmond Refinery in Richmond, Calif., on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

Closely watched decision is cheered by business groups, slammed by environmentalists

A major ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday that weakened the ability of federal agencies to set rules on the environment, drug safety, consumer protections and other areas could impact California — from vehicle pollution standards to oil and gas drilling on public lands — even though California has its own state laws that are tougher than those in other states and the federal government.

“The decision is an earthquake in U.S. law,” said attorney Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s Climate and Energy Policy Program, “impacting every single thing, especially every new thing, that any federal agency might want to do to address new problems they are seeking to solve.”

Delivering a major win for big business in a 6-3 ruling, the court’s conservative majority overturned a 1984 Supreme Court decision commonly known as the “Chevron doctrine.” In that case involving the San Ramon-based oil giant, the Supreme Court ruled 40 years ago that judges in lower courts should defer to federal agencies like the EPA and FDA if laws passed by Congress are not clear.

“…the state still depends on the federal Clean Air Act, the federal Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and all sorts of other laws.”

Sanjay Narayan
chief appellate counsel, Sierra Club

That case is one of the most often cited cases in administrative law. Environmental groups, trial attorneys, unions and others have said it is critical because issues change faster than Congress can update laws, particularly in an era of partisan gridlock. Conservatives and industry said it gave too much power to bureaucracies.

At first glance, California would seem to be immune from much of the ruling, particularly on the environment. Over the past 50 years, state lawmakers have passed tougher regulations in air pollution, water pollution, endangered species protections, climate change and other areas than the federal government has. Friday’s decision only affects federal agencies, not state agencies.

But many of California’s environmental protections come from federal laws, experts said Friday.

“California has a wonderful tradition of strong environmental laws, but the state still depends on the federal Clean Air Act, the federal Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and all sorts of other laws,” said Sanjay Narayan, chief appellate counsel with the Sierra Club, based in Oakland.

And how some issues are regulated nationally, such as climate change, have impacts in California, he added.

“Climate change impacts wildfires in the state and sea level rise,” he said. “Federal laws matter to California.”

Further, nearly 50% of California’s land is owned by the federal government, including tens of millions of acres of national forests, national parks, wildlife refuges and military bases, where the state has little to no jurisdiction over federal rules on logging, mining, oil and gas drilling, and cattle grazing.

In some areas, such as railroad safety, airplane safety and telecommunications law, federal laws pre-empt California’s state laws. In 1991 […]

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