As experts weigh fallout from the Supreme Court June 30 ruling that limits the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to force power plants to pivot to cleaner energy, Democrats in the House — led by Southern California Reps. Mike Levin and Katie Porter — are pushing the Biden administration to quickly adopt a slate of detailed rules aimed at improving air and water quality nationwide.

A letter dated Wednesday, June 29, signed by Levin, Porter and 28 other House Democrats, asks EPA Administrator Michael Regan to take aggressive executive action in 11 areas. That includes calls to lower the acceptable levels of harmful particulate matter in the air, to remove all lead pipes from public water systems within 10 years and to boost clean vehicle standards by 2030.

The letter also suggests a potential workaround for the EPA to still drive emissions limits on power plants without violating the Supreme Court’s latest ruling.

“I don’t think any of us want to go back to a time when smog alerts are the rule rather than the exception,” said Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, recalling how common such measures were in Southern California before creation of the EPA and other environmental laws in the early 1970s  launched an era of pushing for cleaner air.

“We need to be strengthening our air quality standards, not weakening them.”

In their ruling on the West Virginia v. EPA case, a conservative majority of justices on the Supreme Court said that the EPA overstepped its authority when it implemented such a strict cap on carbon dioxide emissions that it essentially forced power plants nationwide to transition away from using coal.

“The Court’s decision confirms Congress, not the EPA, has the authority to create environmental policy,” GOP Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, who’s the ranking member on the Senate Energy committee, said in a statement. “We’ll continue working to protect the environment while making American energy as clean, reliable and affordable as possible.”

But Levin, who was an environmental attorney before his 2018 election to the 49th District covering south Orange County and north San Diego County, joined nearly 200 other Congress members in signing onto an amicus brief in January that disputed the notion that the EPA doesn’t have authority to take broad actions. He said Congress passed the Clean Air Act — along with the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and a slew of other key environmental laws — understanding that the appropriate regulatory agency would “have discretion and latitude to be able to implement what Congress sends it way.”

“You cannot expect Congress to be so prescriptive as to anticipate every potential action that would result from the legislative process. Otherwise, what’s the point of the regulatory process?” he asked.

While the ruling doesn’t unwind any of California’s strict environmental laws, Levin said he’s worried about the precedent it sets for other federal agencies, fearing it might “stifle” them from taking proactive action on important issues.

Still, Levin said he remains hopeful that the EPA can move forward on all of the regulations he and his colleagues — including Southern California Reps. Nanette Diaz Barragán, Mark Takano and others — outlined in their June 29 letter, insisting those executive actions are allowed under existing authority the agency has under the Clean Air Act.

“We cannot let a partisan Supreme Court derail necessary efforts to reduce pollution and protect families,” Porter said. “Our letter outlines executive actions we believe the Biden Administration should start considering immediately to take appropriate action in light of the Court’s decision.”

The request most directly related to the recent Supreme Court decision asks the EPA to issue binding, federal greenhouse gas limits on new gas-fired power plants while only issuing guidelines for existing plants. But per the letter, states would then be required to use those guidelines to issue their own binding emissions limits on plants in their boundaries.

If the EPA were to attempt such a maneuver, Robin Kundis Craig, an environmental law professor at USC, said it has to first figure out a way to define a “best system” to reduce emissions in a way that “does not offend the Supreme Court and actually reduces greenhouse gas emissions.”

The court made it pretty clear Thursday that the EPA cannot require a large-scale change in fuel sources. But Craig said a 2014 ruling in the case Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA also gave the federal agency considerable authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that are already subject to certain limits under the Clean Air Act. So she said the agency should have authority to limit emissions from at least some facilities, which could lead to significant reductions without running afoul of the Supreme Court’s latest ruling.

After reviewing other requests in Democrats’ letter, Craig said most remain clearly within the EPA’s authority — though some might still face practical, financial or technological limitations. Here are details of other key proposals.

-Lower the allowed level of fine particulate matter, or soot, from 12 to 8 micrograms per cubic meter, and lower the level of ozone pollution from 70 to 60 parts per billion. Nearly 48,000 premature deaths a year are caused by breathing fine particulate matter, the letter notes. Craig said both standards are clearly still within the EPA’s authority, though she noted “some states are still struggling to come into compliance with the EPA’s last revision of the ozone standard.”

-Remove all lead service lines from public water systems within a decade at no cost to property owners, set acceptable levels of lead at 5 parts per billion at the tap, and increase testing for lead in water. Such rules are in the works, Craig said. But she noted these changes can be expensive, particularly for smaller and poorer cities that might be most affected. “It becomes a bit of a Catch-22 in the absence of significant federal money to help with the upgrades,” she said, requiring coordinated infrastructure legislation to make it plausible.

-Require at least a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles by 2030. Given Thursday’s ruling, Craig said it would be an interesting question whether the Supreme Court would back the EPA in writing a regulation that might require a nationwide conversion to electric vehicles by 2030. Plus, she noted the agency has to consider that if the electricity for the cars comes from coal-fired power plants, “the switch to electric vehicles may not result in a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Asked about the idea of Congress pushing such regulations as legislation, rather than relying on the EPA to make the changes, Levin said members are discussing options. But he said the point is that they “shouldn’t have to,” since he’s confident the EPA still has authority to act.

There’s still a sense of urgency, Levin said, both due to the public health and climate change impacts, and to get the requested protections in place before the next presidential election.

“We’ve made tremendous progress because of California’s waiver from the federal Clean Air Act, which was under attack in the last administration,” he said.

“We cannot just stand idly by and think that California environmental laws or reproductive rights laws or gun violence prevention laws are just to be taken for granted, because they are not.”

Surveys show a majority of Americans support environmental efforts, Levin noted. And he pointed out such ideas were bipartisan for decades, with the EPA created under GOP President Richard Nixon while the Clean Air Act and other key environmental laws passed with overwhelming support from both sides of the aisle. Ronald Reagan was governor of California when we got a Clean Air Act waiver, while Arnold Schwarzenegger was at the helm when California passed its landmark Global Warming Solutions Act.

“Clean air, clean water; those aren’t partisan issues,” Levin said. “All of our lungs, all of our bodies, they’re all impacted the same way by pollution. And we should all want a cleaner future, not a dirtier one.”

The EPA hasn’t yet responded to the letter, a spokesperson from Levin’s office said Friday.