On Tuesday evening, the Supreme Court issued a surprise block on President Obama’s clean power plan. The move, which allows states to bide their time in submitting plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, threw left-leaning environmentalists into a tizzy and Republicans and the fossil fuel industry into a state of righteousness.
Look no further than Utah’s conservative Senator Orrin Hatch’s response for the general vibe:
This administration's continuous attempts to circumvent Congress by unilaterally waging a war on coal production and electrical generation hurts all Americans, especially Utahns, by destroying jobs and hiking energy prices. I applaud the Supreme Court's decision to halt this onerous, unlawful, and costly EPA regulation and will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress to rein in the out-of-control executive branch.
The split 5-4 decision to “stay” environmental regulations until legal rulings are finalized was highly unexpected, and sheds some doubt on the future of the plan, which was designed to adhere to a strict timeline before Obama leaves office. However, it does not affect the soundness of the rule and the White House remains confident that it only represents a “bump in the road.”
The Administration was feeling confident in the plan's prospects in part because in January a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington unanimously rejected the plea of 27 states and energy companies to delay the implementation of the law. The appeals court is currently tentatively scheduled to hear the case in early June. In an Obama administration brief delivered to the court last week, Solicitor General Verrilli wrote that “climate change is the most significant environmental challenge of our day, and it is already affecting national public health, welfare and the environment.”
The Supreme Court had also never before blocked an EPA rule.
Jeff Holmstead, a lawyer for coal-powered utilities that challenged the rule, said that to say “it's unusual is a bit of an understatement."
To say that the opponents of the plan just completed a Hail Mary pass is more accurate.
The EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) represents the first nationwide effort to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, requiring their reduction by nearly a third compared to 2005 by 2030. It was designed with the global effort to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in mind, and was a focal point in ushering through the successful Paris climate deal in December.
At the same time, some states and businesses worry that it will increase electricity costs and also unfairly hinder the fossil fuel industry—even as it has been pointed out many times that it won’t do those things.
As Joe Romm at ClimateProgress points out, if the Supreme Court does end up ultimately ruling against the CPP, it would be seen as a “purely political move” due to the “untenability of the decision.”
Romm, who has written extensively about the future of energy, also thinks that a ruling against the CPP would be “far from fatal” considering the states of both clean energy and dirty energy.
With solar and wind power prices continuing to drop, along with the recent extension of key tax credits, “exponential expansion of renewable power in this country is unstoppable,” according to Romm.
“So if electricity demand remains flat and renewables soar while natural gas prices remain low, then coal is going to get squeezed out anyway, and power plant emissions will continue their steady decline,” he wrote.
None of this is a sure thing, however, and even if it was, stricter carbon dioxide limits will be necessary in the future to prevent catastrophic levels of global warming.
But for those in need of some solace during this disruptive episode, it’s helpful to remember that while the CPP is a landmark piece of policy and a cornerstone in Obama’s climate legacy, it is not the be-all and end-all.
As Michael Grunwald pointed out in Politico last summer, while the CPP may sound ambitious, its 2030 target is highly reasonable. He wrote that “the ongoing transformation of the U.S. grid—a shift from carbon-intensive coal to lower-carbon natural gas and zero-carbon renewables, plus a general easing of electricity demand—has already gotten us almost halfway to that goal, and the Clean Power Plan hasn’t even taken effect yet."
After a decade of aggressive growth, global coal demand stalled in 2015; and not so much because of carbon pricing, but more due to local pollution concerns and China’s move away from a coal-dependent and manufacturing-based economy.
Since July, at least four major U.S. coal producers have filed for bankruptcy: Walter Energy Inc., Alpha Natural Resources Inc., Patriot Coal, and most recently Arch Coal, the second largest coal producer in the country. Since 2012, more than 50 coal companies have filed for bankruptcy.
Last year, the Sierra Club determined that nearly 40% of the 523 U.S. coal plants in operation nationwide just five year ago had been retired. Coal plants in America are an average of 42-years-old and release far more pollutants than newer plants with better technology.
The Supreme Court stay on Tuesday is a reminder that Obama cannot stop climate change by himself. He can’t do it by rejecting the Keystone XL, he can’t do it by incentivizing clean energy, and he definitely can’t do it by forcefully reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is all the more obvious now that the CPP case likely won't be resolved by the time Obama leaves office.
The unanticipated Supreme Court decision injects the presidential race with a new urgency when it comes to the country’s climate trajectory. Clean energy is growing. Dirty energy is struggling. An engaged and determined public can help swing the pendulum either way.