Don Brunell Commentary: It’s Time for Congress to Reassert Itself


While critics contend the U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting how the nation’s main anti-air pollution law can be used to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants was a “gut punch,” it wasn’t.  The court appropriately threw the ball back to Congress to rectify.

By a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court said the federal Clean Air Act does not give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) broad authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that contribute to global warming. 

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that Congress must speak clearly on this subject. A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon, a Republican, and Democrats who controlled Congress, created the EPA to enforce new air, water and hazardous waste laws.  Since then, the EPA has gradually extended its authority and reached a point where the Supreme Court said it is time for Congress to reassert itself.

That’s a wise move. It is time those elected by voters weigh in.

In the early 1970s when the Clean Air Act was enacted, I was a congressional press aide for a Montana congressman in Washington, D.C., and carefully watched the debates over jurisdiction.   Specifically, Congress was wrestling with limits of EPA authority.

In those days, the air quality issue was “acid rain.”  Midwestern and Atlantic coast coal-fired power plants were burning high-sulfur Appalachian coal. Previously, power companies had heightened their “smoke stacks” to disperse the pollutants higher into the atmosphere.  Unfortunately, rainfall in northeastern forests became more acidic and trees were dying.

The Clean Air Act also applied to western copper smelters only under a specific set of regulations.  Those facilities were not only emitting sulfur, but arsenic and heavy metals. 

In western Montana, our congressional district, smelters in Anaconda, Helena and Great Falls, contaminated farm lands, woods and streams. The ASARCO smelter in Rustin was a unique problem because it was located in densely populated Tacoma.  It also was contaminating Puget Sound waters.

Through strict emissions requirements, smelters were required to capture pollutants before releasing emissions back into the atmosphere.   When the price of copper and other metals made it impossible to operate, the smelters were closed, razed and the site clean-up commenced.  But again, the smelter-owners were addressing specific EPA rules.

So what’s next? 

First, Congress needs to reassert itself.   It needs to look at environmental legislation and establish policies under which EPA has clear authority.

Second, air pollution is more than eliminating coal-fired power plants. In fact, tailpipe emissions from cars, trucks and buses account for over one-fifth of the United States’ total global warming pollution.

Third, Congress must consider how countries, such as China and India, are contributing to CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants.  Pollution knows no international boundaries. 

Most of the world’s existing coal-fired power generation is in emerging and developing economies. Roughly 60% of the electricity generated in China, India and Indonesia is from coal. Similarly, almost 90% of the new coal power plants being developed worldwide are also in emerging and developing economies, mostly in Asia.

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, countries such as Germany, are resorting to reopening coal-fired power plants.  The Germans have little choice.

The bottom line is our country cannot act in a vacuum. 

It is not as if we’re starting from scratch.  EPA summarized it best in its 50-year report: “From 1970 to 2019, emissions of six key pollutants have dropped 77%, while the economy has grown 285% — proving that clean air policies and a robust economy can go hand in hand.”

It’s time for a thorough re-examination.


Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at