Courtroom Setback Puts Pressure on Obama’s Other Climate Efforts

(Bloomberg) — 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.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Jennifer A. Dlouhy in Washington at jdlouhy1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net
Elizabeth Wasserman

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