U.S. Supreme Court Halts the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan

U.S. Supreme Court Halts the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan (CPP) on Tuesday. This ruling temporarily pauses the administration’s efforts to implement or enforce the regulation—a centerpiece of President Obama’s climate change action plan—until legal challenges have reached a conclusion. The Washington Post explained that the Court’s decision to block federal regulation is surprising and unusual, particularly where a lower court had not come to the same conclusion.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied a request to stay the CPP regulations in January. The high court’s 5-4 vote (read the full order here) is a response to an appeal of that decision from a coalition of 29 states and state agencies led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. U.S. Supreme Court Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito ruled in favor of the appeal for a stay and Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor dissented.

The D.C. Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the state and industry challenge to the CPP in June 2016. A ruling on the plan from that court is expected in late 2016 or early 2017, but further challenges to that decision are likely to end up in the Supreme Court—placing the implementation of any viable plan with the next presidential administration.

Announced in its final form last August, the CPP aims to reduce heat-trapping carbon pollution from power plants, which generate 32 percent of total carbon emissions, according to the EPA. The largest contributor to greenhouse gas pollution in this country is electric power generation. Currently, there are no national limits on carbon emissions from existing power plants. The CPP intends to set a range of new national standards for power generation, with the goal of reducing nationwide carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. The CPP also establishes a target for states and utilities to achieve 30 percent more renewable energy generation by 2030.

As noted previously on our blog, the Obama Administration’s CPP was certain to face legal hurdles. In addition, legislators from states that rely heavily on coal production or coal-fired electricity, such as U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, are eager to protect the coal industry and have been urging governors to ignore the EPA rule. Opponents also argue that implementing the CPP would be too costly and that the EPA does not have the authority to regulate the Plan. The EPA contends that the agency has authority under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act to identify the “best system of emission reduction.” However, the ruling for a stay of the CPP on Tuesday suggests that a majority of the justices on the high court may have doubts about the EPA’s authority to implement the CPP under the Clean Air Act.

Advocates of the CPP believe a court ruling that the EPA does not have such authority may significantly hamper efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions and address climate change. The Supreme Court’s ruling to put the CPP on hold comes just months after the high court blocked the Obama administration’s EPA rule to limit mercury emissions from power plants. The court's majority ruled the EPA did not reasonably consider cost in its decision to impose the new regulation.

Rulings by the courts may have serious implications for the EPA’s ability to enforce future regulations, but some states have already put in place emissions reduction benchmarks with the objective of reaching final targets in the Clean Power Plan. One analysis found that “31 states are already on track to be more than halfway toward meeting their 2022 Clean Power Plan benchmarks, with 21 set to surpass it [and] 20 states are already on track to be more than halfway toward meeting their 2030 Clean Power Plan target, with 16 set to surpass their 2030 Clean Power Plan targets.”

While there is uncertain terrain on the road ahead, it is clear that power producers and users will need to find ways to navigate required or prudent change, whether that is natural gas conversion, stricter emission controls, implementing renewable sources of energy production, or reducing energy use.

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