Supreme Court delivers blow to key Biden environmental policy in unanimous ruling

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The Supreme Court issued a ruling Thursday narrowing the federal government’s authority regulating bodies of water and effectively upending a Biden administration policy that recently went into effect.

The high court’s unanimous 9-0 decision, which was delivered by Justice Samuel Alito, rejected the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) broad definition of Waters of the United States (WOTUS). The case centered around Michael and Chantall Sackett, two Idaho residents whom the EPA prohibited from building a home near a wetland years ago, citing the Clean Waters Act (CWA) of 1972.

“The EPA ordered the Sacketts to restore the site, threatening penalties of over $40,000 per day,” Alito’s majority opinion stated. “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.’”

The ruling ultimately held that the federal government’s WOTUS definition must be restricted to a water source with a “continuous surface connection” to major bodies of water. 

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President Biden speaks with EPA Administrator Michael Regan during a White House event on environmental justice. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“Understanding the CWA to apply to wetlands that are distinguishable from otherwise covered ‘waters of the United States’ would substantially broaden [existing statute] to define ‘navigable waters’ as ‘waters of the United States and adjacent wetlands,'” Alito wrote.

The ruling, which was cheered by Republican lawmakers and groups representing landowners, comes months after the EPA finalized and implemented a new WOTUS regulation. 

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On Dec. 30, the final working day of 2022, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers quietly announced they had approved the WOTUS regulation and that it would be implemented in March. After announcing it, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the rule “safeguards our nation’s waters.”

The rule opened the door for the federal government to regulate wetlands, lakes, ponds, streams and “relatively permanent” waterways, largely mimicking a pre-2015 environmental rule set during the Obama administration which implemented the changes in an effort to curb water pollution. The regulation was the broadest interpretation to date of which water sources require protection under the CWA.

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on April 24. (Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Industry groups, Republican lawmakers in Congress and multiple states blasted the regulation as an example of federal overreach and demanded that it be rescinded. In April, a federal judge granted a request from 24 states and several trade groups to pause implementation of the regulation. And the House and Senate both approved a regulation rejecting the regulation.

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“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-W.Va., 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. “I was proud to both support the petitioners on this case last year and lead a successful effort this year in Congress to overturn the Biden WOTUS rule, and am thrilled with the Court’s decision today, which is a major win for individual freedom.”

Congressional Western Caucus Chairman Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said the court ruled in favor of “the Constitution, the American people, and our freedoms” and called on the EPA to officially rescind its WOTUS regulation.

The Waters Advocacy Coalition, a group representing farmers, applauded the Supreme Court for preserving water protections while delivering clarity for farmers and landowners.

“The Court’s opinion also upends the Biden Administration’s overreaching WOTUS rule,” the group said. “After decades of attempts to expand the federal government’s power over private land, America’s job creators and farmers can proceed with more certainty in delivering critical services our economy depends on, from growing healthy foods to building affordable homes and producing domestic energy.”

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