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Tina Casey headshot

U.S. Business Leaders Throw a Lifeline to EPA on Climate Action

By Tina Casey
New York Power Plant - EPA looks to regulate GHGs with Clean Power Plan

The U.S. Supreme Court seems on course to stop the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, but that is not the end of the U.S. climate action story. Regardless of what the Court decides, the Department of Energy has just announced a new public-private initiative that sets a high bar for rapid decarbonization.

The U.S. is decarbonizing without the Clean Power Plan

As capably summarized by National Public Radio earlier this week, the Supreme Court is now hearing a case brought by coal stakeholders and 17 state attorneys general. The case has roots in the 2015 Clean Power Plan, a carbon-reducing initiative introduced during the Barack Obama administration. 

The Clean Power Plan is an EPA rule that sets carbon limits on a state-by-state basis, rather than targeting individual power plants. The intent was to provide each state with the flexibility to decarbonize its power generation sector in accordance with its own unique needs and resources.

The Clean Power Plan never went into effect. Fossil energy stakeholders and their allies immediately, and successfully, challenged it in court in West Virginia vs. the Environmental Protection Agency.

Nevertheless, utilities and policymakers in many states proceeded with their decarbonization plans, under the assumption that the decision would eventually come down in the EPA’s favor.

The case for decarbonization among corporate energy consumers also continued to drive the clean power market throughout Obama’s term in office. Former President Donald Trump tried to pull the plug on climate action when he took office, but the bottom-line case continued to win out. The Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance is just one example of the ability of energy consumers to shift the electricity market in a low-carbon direction, even without the benefit of federal regulation.

U.S. Supreme Court flexes its conservative muscles against the EPA

When President Joe Biden took office in 2021, the Clean Power Plan was still winding its way through the courts, and the Supreme Court’s 6-3 conservative majority seemed likely to decide against the EPA. With the end in sight, the Biden administration revoked the Clean Power Plan altogether and prepared to start over with a clean slate.

U.S. businesses flex right back

Despite that maneuver, last year the Supreme Court agreed to take the case. The Court heard oral arguments on Monday, and a decision is expected over the summer.

Regardless of the decision, the Biden administration has already taken steps to empower corporate leaders to ramp up their decarbonization efforts.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Energy announced the new “Better Climate Challenge,” which aims to coordinate and maximize the carbon-reducing efforts of more than 90 leading businesses, academic institutions, local governments and other civic entities.

Among the high-profile corporate energy consumers and stakeholders are 3M, Cummins, Honeywell, Ikea, Kohl’s, Nestlé, Stanley Black & Decker, Whirlpool, Xerox, and many others. Auto manufacturers are also represented by Ford, General Motors, Harley, Nissan, Toyota and Volvo.

Participants in the Better Climate Challenge commit to lead by example, pledging to cut their carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030. Though many of the participants have already made extensive cuts, the new initiative challenges them to meet their pledge without the use of carbon offsets. 

As a lead-by-example initiative, the Better Climate Challenge has also enlisted several public housing and multifamily partners. Buildings that fall under these two categories are perceived to be difficult to decarbonize due to income or ownership factors, or both. However, the Energy Department and its partners have already made considerable progress, and the Better Climate Challenge provides a high-profile platform for sharing best practices with other stakeholders.

All hands on deck for climate action, Supreme Court or not

The Better Climate Challenge will also tap into a network of more than 950 DOE partners that have been sharing best practices for decarbonization through the agency’s Better Buildings Initiative.

In addition to DOE-led programs, the nation’s sprawling network of rural electric cooperatives has also become a potent force for widespread decarbonization, under the umbrella of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Earlier this month, for example, NRECA encouraged its members to contact transportation agencies in their home states and collaborate on the Biden administration’s five-year, $5 billion plan to establish electric vehicle charging station networks across the country.

The organization is currently lobbying Congress for new regulations that would level the financial playing field for nonprofits and provide a more equitable platform for clean power and other clean technologies.

“As electric co-ops work to reliably meet future energy needs at a cost that consumers can afford, they must have equal access to energy incentives and programs,” NRECA CEO Jim Matheson said in a statement last November.

A wakeup call for corporate citizens

As for the fate of the Clean Power Plan, the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case may seem pointless. However, Supreme Court observers have argued that the unusual decision is a thinly disguised muscle-flexing exercise rooted in the mindset of the conservative justices who dominate the bench, including the husband of a high-profile conservative lobbyist.

A ruling against the EPA's Clean Power Pan could ripple out to cripple the ability of all federal agencies to administer laws passed by Congress, including the U.S. Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

It's too late for the fossil energy stakeholders behind West Virginia vs. EPA to rethink their position, but at a time when Europe hovers on the brink of another war, it’s not too late for other corporate leaders to rethink their support for conservative priorities.

Image credit: Alex Simpson/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey