Don't Like EPA's Power-Plant Plan? Complain to Congress

American Pastoral.

Photographer: George Frey/Getty Images

The legal challenge against the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan names the Environmental Protection Agency as the defendant. But make no mistake: It's Congress that's on trial. And it's Congress's inaction that should ultimately compel the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to rule in the EPA's favor.

Opponents of EPA's regulations, which aim to cut carbon emissions from electric-power plants 32 percent below 2005 levels, are right about this much: This is a deeply imperfect policy. It relies on a novel application of the Clean Air Act, written well before the dangers of global warming were fully understood. And it can't easily be updated to reflect changes on the ground, such as the faster-than-expected decline of coal.

But Congress left the Obama administration no choice. The only way to avert potentially disastrous climate change is to lower emissions as soon as possible. Congress's refusal since 2010 to consider any climate policy at all forced the EPA to look for alternatives. 

The 27 states suing to block the rules argued in court on Tuesday that the EPA is overstepping its authority in forcing them to restructure their power portfolios. But EPA has a legal responsibility to act. In 2007, the Supreme Court ordered it to consider carbon dioxide a pollutant, subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. The Clean Power Plan is the agency's attempt -- however balky and flawed -- to carry out that order.

QuickTake The Cost of Carbon

A far simpler and more effective way to cut emissions would be for Congress to impose a tax on carbon. That would ensure that all fuels are priced to account for their effect on the atmosphere, and let markets find the most efficient ways to lower emissions. It would also create enough revenue to allow other taxes to be cut.

Until Congress acts, however, the EPA is obligated to use what tools are available. Opponents are right to say the Clean Power Plan is cumbersome, but they're complaining to the wrong people.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.