Supreme Court Chevron ruling has implications for Minnesota’s environment (2024)

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Cathy Wurzer and Matthew Alvarez

Supreme Court Chevron ruling has implications for Minnesota’s environment (1)

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This U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 Chevron ruling ended four decades of legal precedent in which courts deferred to federal agencies to interpret laws that they have to enforce.The reversal has broad implications for health, labor and the environment.

Leigh Currie, who worked as a special assistant attorney general when the state sued Exxon Mobil and is currently the director of strategic litigation for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, talked to MPR News host Cathy Wurzer about what this ruling could mean for Minnesota.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

How important was the Chevron doctrine?

It was really the foundation of what we call administrative law, which is law that affects any agency, including the Environmental Protection Agency. It answered the question of, “When in doubt, who gets the final say of what the law says and what it means?” For the last 40 years under the Chevron doctrine, that question was answered as, “the agencies.”

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The agency that is administering the law in our case is the Environmental Protection Agency. If there’s any question of what the law means, the courts would defer to the expertise of the agency implementing the law.

The decision Friday overruled that, and flipped it on its head and said, “If there’s a law that’s not crystal clear in what it means, and the agency decides it means x and creates a rule, it’s actually then the courts that decide if what the agency did was the best decision.” What the law had been is: “Is it permissible? Is it allowable?” In which case, the courts had to let it stand. So it's a big deal to reverse that.

I’m wondering about some of the environmental stories we’re seeing here in Minnesota. Copper-nickel mining in the Boundary Waters, PFAS litigation and the new water filtration rules, Enbridge Line 3 — does this Supreme Court ruling shift the balance of any of those issues?

This Supreme Court decision will make it harder for environmental and other agencies to enact rules and use foundational laws that are 50 years old to address new emerging issues like PFAS and climate change.

These weren’t issues that are written into our Clean Water Act and our Clean Air Act. The EPA has been able to use those foundational laws to do what it can to address these emerging issues. These cases (and really it’s been a string of cases that has been chipping away at EPA’s ability to do its job) will really affect its ability to address these new and emerging issues.

As an environmental attorney, what are the long range implications for the state of Minnesota with this particular ruling?

There are projects, like proposed mines or oil pipelines, that need both state and federal permits. There may be some implications long-term in how stringent the federal permits are for these types of projects.

Second, federal laws set the floor — the bare minimum — of what states need to do under, say, the Clean Water Act. And states can go above and beyond that, and Minnesota often does, and it has some pretty good environmental laws.

But this shift will mean that the bare-minimum requirements might not ever improve or could even backslide. These standards that are met by neighboring states that don’t have strong state laws like Minnesota are going to stay low. And as you know, pollution doesn’t stop at state lines.

That’s the whole premise ofanother Supreme Court decision that came out last week, which was called the Good Neighbor rule that they put on hold.

Minnesota long-term is at the mercy of the political will of neighbors to stop burning coal or emitting other harmful pollutants that travel into our state. We might not have, going forward, the help from the federal government that we’ve had in the past.

As an environmental attorney, does this make your job a lot harder? Will you be busier?

It changes how we will approach cases. If the agencies have created a rule that if they follow the procedures, it’s allowed by the statute, we can kind of assume that the courts are going to uphold that. It's definitely going to change how we can approach those assumptions.

Now there’s a lot more uncertainty in how courts will view agency decisions. It definitely won’t make us busier, because we’re already kind of as busy as we could be. There’s no shortage of environmental issues to work on. And that will definitely continue.We’ll stay busy trying to protect Minnesotans and their health and the environment.

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Supreme Court Chevron ruling has implications for Minnesota’s environment (2024)
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