Courtroom Setback Puts Pressure on Obama's Other Climate Efforts

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A jogger runs pasts the Supreme Court building on Jan. 16, 2015, in Washington.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • Supreme Court delayed implementation of power-plant rule
  • Program designed to cut carbon pollution from power plants

The Supreme Court’s decision to temporarily halt enforcement of President Barack Obama’s plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants -- and the prospect it could ultimately be scrapped -- puts pressure on the administration to move on other fronts to meet its climate-change goals.

"The Clean Power Plan is one way to get there, but it’s not the only way," Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said in a telephone interview.

In a 5-4 vote, the high court on Tuesday halted implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan until legal challenges are resolved.

The plan may ultimately survive legal scrutiny, though a resolution is unlikely while Obama is still in the White House. In the meantime, the Supreme Court stay increases the perception that the Clean Power Plan is in greater legal jeopardy and Obama’s successor may determine its fate.

Obama can cement his climate legacy and fulfill commitments the U.S. made as part of an international climate accord in Paris by using other tools to put the nation on a trajectory that even a GOP-led Congress and determined Republican in the White House can’t shift, environmentalists say. 

Methane Leaks

Methane is "the next big opportunity," Sierra Club’s Hitt said.

The EPA last year proposed a regulation tackling releases of methane from new oil and gas wells, but conservationists say it doesn’t go far enough and want to see mandates imposed on existing operations.

The Clean Power Plan alone isn’t "sufficient to turn the climate crisis around," Hitt said, "so we are encouraging the administration to redouble its effort on all the tools at its disposal to reduce emissions, including methane emissions from new and existing sources."

Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, has contributed to the Sierra Club’s anti-coal efforts.

Administration officials stressed the U.S. climate commitment does not hinge on the Clean Power Plan alone. Other regulations and market forces -- including the allure of low-cost natural gas -- have already encouraged utilities to move away from coal-fired power toward the cleaner-burning alternative.

Wind, Solar

Renewable power also has decreased in cost, making it more attractive for utilities nationwide. Wind and solar power also benefit from Congress’ decision in December to extend tax credits that help offset the cost of new projects.

White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said there are "driving forces" that will allow the U.S. to meet its Paris commitment outside the Clean Power Plan.

The "Clean Power Plan is only one part of this administration’s initiative to transform" the energy sector, Schultz said, highlighting the renewable tax credit extension.

The schedule for the Clean Power Plan litigation "looks like it will be concluded well in time for the U.S. to make its commitments in the Paris agreement," Schultz told reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday. "We remain confident when this is given its day in court it will be upheld on its merits."

Paris Commitments

As for the commitments made in Paris, the U.S. is engaged in "ongoing" conversations with diplomatic partners, Schultz said. Administration officials who work on this "feel very confident their counterparts understand the complexities of rulemaking in the United States and that this will be a temporary procedural determination."

Clean Power Plan foes said the Supreme Court stay should force the president to abandon the strategy.

"The court’s action should demonstrate once again to the world that this president has committed the U.S. to actions that are unenforceable and legally questionable," Senator James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, said in an e-mailed statement.

The Clean Power Plan encourages states and utilities to use less coal and more natural gas as well as wind and solar power. It is designed to lower carbon emissions from power plants 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Coal Miners

In their legal challenge, utilities, coal miners and more than two dozen states say the EPA overstepped its authority and intruded on states’ rights. The challengers, including Southern Co., Peabody Energy Corp., the largest U.S. coal-miner, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said companies and states alike already were having to prepare for the rule to take effect.

A three-judge appellate panel rejected a bid for a delay on Jan. 21, prompting foes to turn to the Supreme Court. The high court had never before granted a request to halt a regulation before review by a federal appeals court, the administration said.

The court gave no explanation for its order.

The appeals court is hearing challenges to the rule on an expedited basis, with arguments set for June 2. If the court rules quickly enough, the Supreme Court could consider the case in the nine-month term that starts in October.

On Hold

For now, the plan will now be on hold until the Supreme Court either rules or refuses to get involved. The EPA won’t be able to enforce a Sept. 6 deadline for states to either submit their emission reduction plans or request a two-year extension.

Attorneys general from West Virginia and Texas, which led the 26-state coalition fighting the program, on Wednesday urged states to halt work on their compliance plans.

"There is no need to expend precious resources on policies that will never become final," West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey told reporters in a conference call.

Morrisey said the Supreme Court sent a message to states: "Put down your pencils because the EPA has no authority to issue and force this illegal rule down your throats."

To bolster the U.S. climate commitment while the plan is under legal scrutiny, the Obama administration should be using other techniques to swiftly pare emissions, said Ben Schreiber, head of the climate and energy team at Friends of the Earth.

Signal Needed

"There’s no question that President Obama and the administration have to be looking at how do we get emissions reductions quickly and send a signal to the rest of the world that we’re serious and we’re not going to let this decision mess with those commitments," Schreiber said in a phone interview. "There’s no question there’s an imperative to show quick gains as well as the long-term commitments."

The U.S. could send a signal to the world about its seriousness by moving to limit oil and gas development on public lands, Schreiber said. That might not yield immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions but would lock up fossil fuels that otherwise might be combusted and used as an energy source.

Obama’s Interior Department already announced a halt to new coal leasing on public lands, while it conducts a broad environmental review of the activity. Environmental activists have been pushing a "keep it in the ground" agenda that would go further than coal, thwarting new development of oil and gas too.

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