The U.S. Supreme Court threw an unexpected monkey wrench into the Obama administration’s plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants yesterday when it placed a hold on the Clean Power Plan until the courts sort through whether it is legally valid. The hold will stay in place until a lower court (the District of Columbia Court of Appeals) rules on the merits and the Supreme Court either refuses to hear the case or rules on the merits. This hold is likely to last for approximately 18 months, depending upon how quickly the appellate process proceeds.
While disappointing, the ruling is not as crippling a blow as some might suggest. Here are three key things to keep in mind about this latest development:
1) The Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the case, and it is a mistake to try to read too much into the court’s one-paragraph decision. At this point, the most prudent interpretation is: The Clean Power Plan presents states with some early deadlines, the legal arguments on both sides are complex, and the court wanted to make sure that no states or private companies were forced into making rash decisions while litigation was pending. One reason the court might have held this concern is because of its recent experience with Environmental Protection Agency’s rule limiting toxic pollution from power plants. In that case, the court ultimately found a legal defect in the rule but, by the time the court ruled, most power plants had already installed pollution controls to comply.
2) The court also did not prevent states from moving forward on clean energy. The Clean Power Plan sets carbon pollution reduction targets for states and requires states to submit plans to meet those targets. While that requirement is now on hold for the time being, nothing prevents states from continuing to work on those plans, using the legal authority that they already have under their own state laws, such as renewable energy standards, efficiency programs, cap-and-trade programs in California and the Northeast, and others. In other words, while the Clean Power Plan is a good driver, particularly for states that have been lagging, it is mostly a reinforcement of the good work that many states are already doing and can continue to do. In fact, a recent Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analysis showed that existing clean energy commitments already place 31 states on track to be more than halfway toward their near-term Clean Power Plan emission reduction requirements, with 21 state set to surpass them. This list even includes states that are challenging the rule in court! There is no reason whatsoever for these states to reverse course now.
As UCS analysts and many others have demonstrated, cutting carbon pollution from power plants and transitioning to clean energy has multiple benefits—cleaner air and improved public health, economic leadership in one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy, and a more economical and varied fuel supply.
3) The high court’s ruling does nothing to change the underlying economics: Our nation’s aging and polluting coal fleet is facing increasing competition from cleaner, lower-cost energy sources. Renewable energy sources are growing rapidly, fueled by technology innovation that has dramatically lowered the costs to the point where renewables are approaching parity with fossil fuel sources. This progress will continue no matter what happens in the courtroom.
While many working for climate action are understandably concerned about the implications of this ruling, it’s a mistake to conclude that all is lost. The most important thing now is for states to commit to continue to make progress notwithstanding this ruling, and for all of us to make sure state governors hear from us urging them to do so.