On February 9, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay against President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, blocking the administration’s most ambitious effort yet to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change. In a 5-to-4 decision (all four liberal justices dissented), the court granted a stay request from 29 states, as well as energy and utility companies. The states, led by West Virginia and Texas, argue that the plan is unconstitutional and encroaches on states’ rights. Although the justices did not specify their reasoning for the stay, the decision to block the plan suggests a majority of the Justices may be receptive to the plaintiff's arguments.


An Unprecedented Move by the Supreme Court

The Clean Power Plan requires states to submit plans for how they would transition away from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy like solar and wind. Emissions targets were set on a state-by-state basis, and the Plan offers each state a flexible framework to meet those targets. Options for reducing carbon emissions include nuclear power, replacing coal-fired plants with natural gas-fired ones, using more energy-efficient technologies, and investing in renewables. States are also given the option of working together in regional compacts to find the most cost-effective options for meeting their targets. States were to submit their finalized plans, or to request an extension, by September 6, 2016. States granted extensions by the EPA would have been given until September 6, 2018, to submit their plans. The Clean Power Plan aims to slash carbon emissions by a third in existing power plants by 2030.

The Supreme Court’s decision to temporarily block the Clean Power Plan took many by surprise. This is the first time the Supreme Court has granted a request to block legislation before a federal appeals court review. The Court's decision seems to indicate that a majority of five Justices view the Clean Power Plan's legality with some skepticism, but it is important to note that the Justices have not ruled on the merits of the case.

The court-ordered stay requires that the Clean Power Plan be put on hold until the judicial process runs its course. A federal appeals court, which had declined to grant a stay, will consider the case first, and has agreed to expedite proceedings. Assuming the appeals court's decision is appealed, which is likely, the Supreme Court would then have the opportunity to take up the case and judge it on its merits. The Justices' ruling would probably only come out in June 2017, after President Obama has left office.


This Is Not the Final Say on the Clean Power Plan

With the Clean Power Plan's fate likely to remain uncertain until mid-2017, it will be easier for Obama's successor to make significant changes to the Plan or to withdraw it altogether. This would jeopardize the U.S. government's commitment to reduce carbon emissions as part of the landmark Paris climate agreement reached last December. The Clean Power Plan is a major component of the Obama Administration's climate actions and showcases the ability of the United States—the second largest emitter in the world—to uphold its end of the bargain.

Despite the judicial setback, the White House remains cautiously optimistic, calling the stay “a bump in the road.” President Obama’s press secretary, John Earnest, said the Clean Power Plan is based on “a strong legal and technical foundation.” The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will keep working with states that decide to continue with their implementation plans to transition away from fossil fuels. California, Colorado, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington have already committed to keep forging ahead. The Clean Power Plan has received broad support from a coalition of 18 states and hundreds of corporations that have all pledged to reduce their emissions. Even in the states suing the EPA, public support for the Clean Power Plan runs high, at an average of 61 percent.

The Supreme Court's decision is unlikely to inhibit international climate efforts. There is a global momentum to move towards cleaner sources of energy, and the 184 other nations involved in the Paris agreement understand the U.S. policy process and see this as a temporary setback on the way to 2020, when the international agreement will come into force.


Author: Anthony Rocco