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Jan Lee headshot

U.S. Supreme Court Halts Clean Power Plan Amid Questions of Partisanship

Words by Jan Lee

The Obama administration's Clean Power Plan suffered a setback on Tuesday when the Supreme Court granted a stay to the program. In a 5-4 decision, the court sided in favor of petitioning states, utilities and coal companies that claimed that the federal government was overreaching its powers when it attempted to establish a national plan to move away from fossil-fuel based power. Requests for the Supreme Court to impose the stay were submitted in January after an appeals court ruled that the plan could proceed while legal challenges were being heard.

The Supreme Court's ruling is an about-face to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and it comes at a critical time for the Obama administration's clean energy program, especially in light of the upcoming elections in November. While the administration can appeal the Supreme Court's order, arguments would not be considered until June and, pending acceptance by the higher court, likely wouldn't be scheduled until October or later this year. That leaves the fate of the Clean Power Plan in the hands of the upcoming presidency.

The Obama administration released a statement that while it disagrees with the Supreme Court's ruling, it would continue to work with states that are willing to support the program. It accused states and opponents of trying to wrangle an "extraordinary and unprecedented" halt to the plan before it was fully reviewed in court.

Supporters of the Clean Power Plan have been even more vocal, questioning the motives of the Supreme Court's conservative majority to block a key strategy to combating climate change. In a Huffington Post op-ed on Wednesday morning, attorney David Halperin delved into why proponents of the plan find the court's decision disturbing.

"Not satisfied with that expedited schedule, the five Justices reached down and took sides in a regulatory dispute that a lower court was still considering. That just hasn't happened before," wrote Halperin, a contributor to RepublicReport.org, who is well-known for his work with the Center for American Progress and is a founding executive director of the American Constitution Society. "Had the Supreme Court not acted, each state would have been required to provide the [Environmental Protection Agency] by Sept. 6 a plan to comply with the regulations, or to request a two-year extension."

Dozens of environmental organizations that support the EPA-regulated plan also weighed in to give their support for its continuance.

The League of Conservation Voters issued a statement saying that while "we strongly disagree with this temporary pause, we are confident that the courts will ultimately uphold the Clean Power Plan on its merits. These standards have a firm legal basis in the Clean Air Act, and have been embraced by a broad and diverse set of stakeholders."

“Today’s court decision is unfortunate but does not reflect a decision on the merits,” added the Environmental Defense Fund's general counsel Vickie Patton.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors also provided analysis of the Supreme Court's unconventional ruling, which CEO and Executive Director Tom Cochran noted flies in the face of efforts that are already being undertaken in municipalities across the nation:

“The U.S. Conference of Mayors is disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision to stay the implementation of EPA's Clean Power Plan.  This is a surprising ruling given the fact that the court earlier ruled that greenhouse gas emissions are considered an air pollutant and therefore subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act.

"More importantly, this is disappointing to the thousands of cities that are already doing their part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and were looking to the utilities to become partners in the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

And finally, the Union of Concerned Scientists offers its own ray of sunshine on the matter, with a caution to go slowly when interpreting the outcome of a temporary stay: "The Supreme Court’s decision to hold up the administration’s efforts to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants is a speed bump, not a stop sign, for progress. It is not a ruling on the merits, and it would be a mistake to read too much into a one–paragraph decision."

For the litigants, however, which includes the state of West Virginia whose attorney general spearheaded the effort, the impromptu stay was a victory that would ultimately translate to financial savings for the state, workers and utility companies.

“We are thrilled that the Supreme Court realized the rule’s immediate impact and froze its implementation, protecting workers and saving countless dollars as our fight against its legality continues," said West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

Whether those savings are realistic in the face of a shifting climate is, of course, what is at the heart of this debate. With the decline in oil and gas revenues and the increasing evidence that climate and human business decisions are linked, energy strategies such as those put forth by the Obama administration may find an ear in the courts once more.

Anyone who is still unsure about the impacts of greenhouse gases should take a look at this video from NASA:


Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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