The Court Case That Will Decide Obama’s Climate Legacy
The future of the US’s centerpiece plan to tackle climate change hangs in the balance following nearly seven hours of legal argument over whether it tramples upon the right of states to allow carbon pollution.
Power utilities and business groups have joined 27 states in challenging the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which would be the single largest tool in cutting greenhouse gas emissions to help avoid dangerous climate change.
Many states have begun shifting funds to clean energy, and the administration has touted measures such as tax credits that it says will have a larger impact on curbing emissions—and still anticipates a win in the Supreme Court in June.
On Tuesday, lawyers representing the states and the Obama administration presented oral arguments to the US court of appeals for the District of Columbia circuit. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court halted the rollout of the Clean Power Plan until the legal challenges were heard. The District of Columbia court is expected to decide by late February but if the case progresses to the Supreme Court it is likely to continue into 2018.
Opponents of the plan claim the US Environmental Protection Agency has overreached by declaring carbon dioxide a harmful pollutant that requires regulation. West Virginia’s attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, who filed a challenge as soon as the plan was announced, said the plan would cause “West Virginia coalminers to lose their jobs and West Virginians’ electricity bills to skyrocket”.
Peter Keisler, a lawyer representing the plan’s opponents, said in court: “We can’t tell a coal plant, ‘You have to become a solar plant’. EPA has no authority to impose a system like this one, which requires, in order to stay open, that the owner invests in other facilities.”
The Clean Power Plan would impose emissions limits upon states with coal-fired power plants but will leave it to the states to decide how to lower these emissions. A form of carbon trading, which has been explicitly blocked at a federal level, could even be allowed between states.
The EPA, which estimates that the Clean Power Plan will reduce CO2 pollution from the energy sector by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, said it is confident the regulation will be upheld as it is has “strong scientific and legal foundations.”
The EPA’s court submission states that the Clean Power Plan addresses “the nation’s most important and urgent environment challenge.”
It adds: “The rule reflects the eminently reasonable exercise of EPA’s recognized statutory authority. It will achieve cost-effective CO2 reductions from an industry that has already demonstrated its ability to comply with robust pollution-control standards through the same measures and flexible approaches.”
The EPA is supported by 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, and environmental groups that support the regulation of CO2 under the Clean Air Act. Proponents have warned that the US urgently needs to reduce emissions in order to slow warming temperatures that are linked to sea level rise, extreme weather, and the spread of disease.
But critics have accused the Obama administration of a “war on coal” and warned that electricity prices will rise by so much that people will not even be able to surf the Internet.
Thomas Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce, said the EPA plan was a “power grab” that will “drive up electricity costs for businesses, consumers and families, impose tens of billions in annual compliance costs, and reduce our nation’s global competitiveness—without any significant reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions.”
Independent studies, however, suggest that the Clean Power Plan will require emissions cuts that are only slightly deeper than what states are already on track to achieve. Various pieces of research have found the new standards would add anything up to $4.56 to the average monthly household electricity bill, with some studies finding that bills will slightly decrease.
Environmental groups were largely positive after the day of legal argument in front of the court’s 10 judges. “This was a good day in court for America’s Clean Power Plan and for healthier air, a safer climate, and economic prosperity,” said Vickie Patton, general counsel for Environmental Defense Fund, which was a party to the case.
David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said: “The Clean Power Plan had a very good day. But we aren’t taking that to the bank just yet. What is certain, though, is we need to take swift and decisive action to combat climate change.
“This plan is our best available tool, and the court should uphold it. If we don’t limit carbon pollution, and quickly, we will bequeath to our children and all future generations a world of climate catastrophe.”
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