Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Mike Hower headshot

Supreme Court Upholds Power Plant Carbon Emissions Limits

The coal industry has been up in arms ever since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new rules to require large industrial facilities and power plants to limit their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses.

In November 2013, nearly 3,000 miners and workers from across the coal industry descended on Capitol Hill to protest President Barack Obama’s alleged “War on Coal.” The rally was organized by a group with a history of opposing climate change legislation -- the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE). Some 30 members of Congress also attended the event, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and even a few coal-country Democrats.

The rules, which the EPA claimed are pursuant of the Clean Air Act, would cap carbon emissions at future coal-fired power plants at 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour (Mwh) and 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per Mwh for new natural gas power plants. With the average coal-fired power plant emitting around 1,800 pounds of carbon dioxide per Mwh, both new and existing power plants would be forced to improve their environmental performances.

Opponents of the proposed rules, which include the coal industry and some states, claim that the rules are “extreme” and “unworkable."

Turns out, the U.S. Supreme Court disagrees. On Monday, the high court ruled 5-4 that the EPA reasonably interpreted the Clean Air Act to require large industrial facilities and power plants to limit their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses if they are also required to obtain permits due to their emissions of other dangerous air pollutants.

However, the court also said that the EPA could not extend permitting requirements to sources that emit only climate change pollution and not other dangerous pollutants.

The industrial facilities at issue in this case are new plants, including power plants, refineries and cement kilns, and plants undergoing major modification that increase emissions. SCOTUS said the rule does not apply to smaller businesses.

In reality, this only means a slight change in the number of big industrial polluters that would be captured by the existing, case-by-case greenhouse gas-permitting program at issue in the case. In other words, the permitting program itself was not struck down. The permitting program mandates that polluters use “best available control technology," which for GHGs typically means increased energy efficiency.

The SCOTUS decision to limit the program to facilities that must already get permits for their conventional pollutants addresses the sources of 83 percent of U.S. greenhouse emissions from industrial polluters, compared with 86 percent without that restriction, the Obama administration says.

The decision is a victory for the Obama administration as it seeks to use the Clean Air Act to combat climate change, Vickie Patton, a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Los Angeles Times. It’s a “big win” for the EPA’s efforts to regulate new power plants, and also for the proposed rules issued earlier this month that would curb pollution from existing power plants.

"The Supreme Court's decision is a win for our efforts to reduce carbon pollution because it allows EPA, states, and other permitting authorities to continue to require carbon-pollution limits in permits for the largest pollution sources," the EPA said in a statement.

But the agency’s opponents also have claimed a victory. The American Petroleum Institute, one of several industry lobbying groups that challenged EPA's permitting rules, claimed the ruling is a stark reminder that the EPA’s power is not unlimited.

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) called the ruling a victory for “rational limits on executive power." SCOTUS agreed with the association that the EPA may not regulate the entire economy by requiring new permits for millions of small- and medium-sized manufacturers, schools, hospitals, offices, churches, warehouses and other buildings.

Time will tell what the long-term ramifications of this decision will be. For now, the Obama administration can rest easy knowing one of its chief sustainability policy moves will live to fight climate change another day.

Image credit: Flickr Werner Krause

Based in San Francisco, Mike Hower is a writer, thinker and strategic communicator that revels in driving the conversation at the intersection of sustainability, social entrepreneurship, tech, politics and law. He has cultivated diverse experience working for the United States Congress in Washington, D.C., helping Silicon Valley startups with strategic communications and teaching in South America. Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter (@mikehower)

Mike Hower headshotMike Hower

Currently based in Washington, D.C, <strong>Mike Hower</strong> is a new media journalist and strategic communication professional focused on helping to drive the conversation at the intersection of sustainable business and public policy. To learn more about Mike, visit his blog,<a href="http://climatalk.com/&quot; > ClimaTalk</a>.

Read more stories by Mike Hower

More stories from Leadership & Transparency