The Clean Power Plan, a keystone of Obama’s climate legacy that will get its day in court on Tuesday, is extremely confusing at the legal level. Conceptually, it’s remarkably simple—it aims to slow carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. It’s a critical element of the United State’s commitment to the Paris Agreement and Obama’s signature climate policy.
Nothing comes easy to the climate movement, which must compete directly the extremely influential and deeply embedded global powerhouse, the fossil fuel industry. After failing to usher domestic climate change legislation through Congress early in his presidency, Obama turned to the Environmental Protection Agency and his executive authority as president to do what he could to combat global warming even as Congress remained grounded in inaction.
In February, the Supreme Court, which at the time still included Anthony Scalia, who died later that month, issued a blow to the CPP by allowing states to bide their time in submitting plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The split 5-4 decision to “stay” environmental regulations until legal rulings are finalized was highly unexpected, and shed some doubt on the future of the plan, which was designed to adhere to a strict timeline before Obama leaves office. However, it did not affect the soundness of the rule and the White House remained confident at the time that it only represented a “bump in the road.”
On Tuesday, that bump in the road will swell into a prominent hearing in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where nearly 20 lawyers will take turns arguing the case, West Virginia v. EPA, before 10 judges. Twenty-eight states along with dozens of companies and industry groups want the plan scrapped for overstepping legal authority. Meanwhile, 18 states and a large contingent of environmental and public health groups are defending the Obama administration’s actions.
Christie Todd Whitman, former EPA Administrator who served under President George W. Bush, recently told TIME she hopes the "D.C. Circuit will be able see the clear facts in this case."
"The Clean Power Plan is legal, it’s flexible, it’s in line with where the market is already going, and it will allow EPA to tackle our biggest environmental challenge using the same smart, effective and economically responsible approach that it has successfully employed for decades.”
Like every other controversial legal issue subject to widespread public scrutiny in America, much of the debate outside the courtroom comes down to political persuasion. A recent analysis found that most of the states contesting the Clean Power Plan are on track to meet its requirements anyways, without extreme actions or the much-touted economic pain and job losses that detractors often argue its implementation will cause.
The Reuters’ analysis found that “changes in the power market, along with policies favoring clean generation, are propelling” most of the states towards “timely compliance."
The CPP—the first nationwide effort to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants—requires carbon dioxide emissions to be reduced by nearly a third compared to 2005 by 2030.
The four hours of legal argument won’t hold the general public’s attention like #debatenight in America, nor will they resolve the CPP’s outstanding issues, which are likely to persist even after Obama leaves office.
With the Paris Agreement on track to go into full ratification this year, the way individual nations meet their self-determined targets will become especially important. In the United States, the EPA has designed the Clean Power Plan to give states the flexibility they need to meet their individual targets, which vary depending on a number of circumstances.
The Clean Power Plan is an acknowledgement that climate change is real(ly bad). It's an acceptance of the future energy paradigm in which clean power is cheaper and more widespread than fossil fuels. It’s a reminder of Congress’ failure to act on one of the most important and urgent issues of the century. And finally, it’s another indication of the influence the next president will have in punctuating Obama’s climate agenda. Donald Trump is surrounding himself with climate deniers and fossil fuel magnates. Hillary Clinton is committed to honoring the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement.
And those are the facts.