Supreme Disarray for the Global Climate Agenda

The high court's freeze of Obama's carbon plan casts doubt on the Paris accord.

Meltdown: The Science Behind Climate Change

Overshadowed by the presidential primary in New Hampshire, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday dealt a potentially devastating blow to President Barack Obama’s climate-rescue plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants.

Few observers expected the court to act so quickly, and aggressively, to block the new Environmental Protection Agency rules. The move may have the added effect of throwing a wrench into global climate change efforts that turn in large part on American leadership.

At issue is Obama's Clean Power Plan, which requires states and utilities to use less coal in favor of electricity derived from wind, solar, and natural gas. The plan, Obama’s signature climate initiative, aims to cut carbon output from power plants to less than 2005 levels. The goal of the plan, finalized last summer, is to be reached by 2030.

Coal producers, utilities, and a majority of states attacked the Clean Power Plan in court, alleging in a lawsuit that the EPA was exceeding its authority while unconstitutionally hindering that of the states. A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., has scheduled arguments in their case for June. On Jan. 21, however, the judges unanimously rejected their request to freeze Obama's plan in the interim. That rejection prompted them to turn to the Supreme Court.

Ordinarily, the justices wouldn’t intervene in a broad regulatory challenge at this early stage. While the high court’s intervention to block the Clean Power Plan isn’t the final word on the controversy—the whole case will eventually come back to the justices for a ruling on the merits—it's an ominous sign for the White House that a majority of the justices view the EPA climate initiative with skepticism.

In its filing with the Supreme Court, the Obama administration called the request for a stay “extraordinary and unprecedented.” Indeed, the foes of the Clean Power Plan couldn’t point to an earlier case where the justices blocked a regulation of this sort while it was still under review by a lower federal court.

The high court majority’s willingness to act in this aggressive fashion, following the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, is what makes the intervention so surprising. The four more-liberal members of the court dissented from the decision to stay the Obama plan.

Environmentalists tried to put an optimistic spin on their setback. “We are confident the courts will ultimately uphold the Clean Power Plan on its merits,” David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an e-mail. “The electricity sector has embarked on an unstoppable shift from its high-pollution, dirty-fueled past to a safer, cleaner-powered future, and the stay cannot reverse that trend. Nor can it dampen the overwhelming public support for action on climate change and clean energy.”

But a more dispassionate assessment is that the indefinite delay constitutes a potentially serious blow to Obama’s environmental agenda and beyond. Specifically, it could undermine American commitment to reduce carbon emissions as part of the international agreement reached in Paris last December.

Business interests celebrated the delay. Thomas Donohue, chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a digital press release: “The Supreme Court’s stay of this rule … will ensure that America will not be forced to make costly and irreversible implementation decisions based upon an unprecedented regulation until judicial review is complete.” The Clean Power Plan, he added, “would put the government in control of our energy choices, drive up electricity costs for American businesses, consumers and families, impose tens of billions of dollars in annual compliance costs, and reduce our nation’s global competitiveness.”

While the ultimate fate of the plan is now in doubt, it will definitely be on hold for some months, possibly through the end of the Obama administration. The EPA will not have authority to enforce an early September deadline it set for states to submit emission-reduction plans or request a two-year extension.

With a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals coming perhaps in late summer or fall, the Supreme Court could conceivably hand down the final word on the Clean Power Plan during its 2016-17 term. 

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