The Supreme Court's stay of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan is not the final blow to the Obama administration’s climate change policy, but it seems directly aimed at tarnishing the president’s environmental legacy. The ruling virtually guarantees that, even if the plan survives court challenges, it will be up to the next president to implement it — or ignore it.
The conservative majority sided 5-4 with a coalition of mostly Republican-led states and industry groups that claims the administration is exceeding its authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Normally, federal regulations can be rolled out while legal challenges are heard in the lower courts. With this ruling, by most accounts, the high court made an extraordinary decision to stop a regulation before a lower court could even issue its own decision.
The administration and some environmental groups put up a brave face in reaction to the stay. “There are driving forces that will allow the United States to meet its commitment outside of the Clean Power Plan rule,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. David Doniger, climate and clean-air program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the stay cannot “dampen the overwhelming public support for action on climate change and clean energy. Smart industry, financial, and governmental leaders will not count the Clean Power Plan out.” Mindy Lubber, president of Boston-based Ceres, which advocates for sustainable business practices and investor decisions, said that hundreds of companies and investors “believe the clean energy economy is inevitable and irreversible, both nationally and globally.”
But the unprecedented nature of the stay suggests that the fossil-fuel industry has the ear of enough justices to deny the inevitable. Rattled by the seismic shifts in the plunging price of oil, the decline of domestic coal prices to their lowest levels in 30 years, and society’s increasing embrace of renewable sources of energy, the protesting states and industries say the Clean Power Plan will clean them out.
But in the absence of national energy policy, the Clean Power Plan is as good an instrument as any to speed that evolution. Electric power plants are the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, and Obama’s rules would cut carbon pollution by 32 percent by 2030. States and the utilities serving them have plenty of time to plan and retool; the first reduction in emissions is not required until 2022.
In the past, this Supreme Court has generally upheld the right of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the emissions that contribute to climate change. Even in a 2014 ruling that placed some limits on the EPA’s authority, Justice Antonin Scalia said, “EPA is getting almost everything it wanted.”
But this stay suggests Scalia and four other justices are deciding that Obama and the EPA have entirely enough. That cannot possibly be the case, with evidence of climate change all around and temperature data that showthat the Earth experienced its warmest years on record the last two years.
For the high court, the Clean Power Plan may seem a mere matter of domestic government overreach. But the world is looking to the plan as a key symbol of American credibility in the Paris climate agreement. Whatever the justices ultimately decide, their ruling will have global reach.