Supreme Court Blocks Obama's Carbon Emissions Plan

Implementation of the carbon emissions rule will stop during ongoing litigation.
The Supreme Court has stayed a proposed Obama administration rule that would have forced power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by nearly a third from 2005 levels by 2030.
The Supreme Court has stayed a proposed Obama administration rule that would have forced power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by nearly a third from 2005 levels by 2030.
MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The fate of the single biggest piece of President Barack Obama鈥檚 climate change legacy was thrown into question Tuesday evening when the Supreme Court blocked the president鈥檚 carbon emissions regulation for existing power plants from moving forward.

In a 5-4 decision, the court granted the stay to 29 states and a slew of industry groups that are appealing the rule. Oral arguments at a federal appeals court in Washington will take place in June.

In August, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized the rule, which mandates existing power plants reduce carbon dioxide emissions 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. The administration estimated that once in effect, the regulation would reduce carbon dioxide pollution by 870 million tons -- equal to the amount produced by 108 million homes or 166 million cars.

The Supreme Court鈥檚 decision does not mean justices will ultimately strike down the regulation, but it doesn鈥檛 bode well for the EPA.

Opponents of the rule were quick to cheer the decision. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) praised the court, and charged that the rule should 鈥渂e struck down permanently before coal country is destroyed completely.鈥

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey called it a 鈥済reat victory鈥 for his state, which is suing the administration over the carbon rule.

鈥淲e are thrilled that the Supreme Court realized the rule鈥檚 immediate impact and froze its implementation, protecting workers and saving countless dollars as our fight against its legality continues,鈥 Morrisey said.

The White House, on the other hand, is 鈥渃onfident that we will prevail on the merits,鈥 said spokesman Josh Earnest.

鈥淭he Clean Power Plan is based on a strong legal and technical foundation, gives States the time and flexibility they need to develop tailored, cost-effective plans to reduce their emissions, and will deliver better air quality, improved public health, clean energy investment and jobs across the country, and major progress in our efforts to confront the risks posed by climate change,鈥 he said.

On a call with reporters later Tuesday night, senior administration officials downplayed the court's decision, calling it a "temporary procedural determination."

"[It] does nothing to affect first, our confidence in the legal soundness of this rule, and it also does nothing to affect our determination to continue to move forward," said one senior administration official.

While the decision in practice puts a hold on implementation of the regulations, the administration officials were quick to point out that states were given a "generous timeline" to comply -- plans don't have to be submitted until 2018.

Pressed on whether the court's action would jeopardize the agreement finalized between the U.S. and nearly 200 nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, officials said the administration is not afraid partners in the climate accord will back out.

The EPA defended the rule, vowing to continue to address carbon pollution.

"We're disappointed the rule has been stayed, but you can't stay climate change and you can't stay climate action," EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said.

But the potential ramifications of the Supreme Court鈥檚 order were not lost on supporters of the president鈥檚 signature climate rule.

鈥淭he Supreme Court鈥檚 deeply misguided decision to stay the implementation of the Clean Power Plan will enable those states that deny climate science to slow progress in reducing the carbon pollution that threatens the health of all Americans,鈥 House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

The justices did not offer details explaining their decision, but the order implies they likely view the rule as one that would place too heavy a burden on businesses and states. The stay effectively leaves the fate of Obama鈥檚 landmark climate rule hanging in the balance until after he leaves office -- meaning the stakes in 2016 are elevated even more when it comes to climate change policies.

Billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer was quick to point out that the future of Obama鈥檚 legacy could very well rest on who is elected president and may be able to appoint up to three justices to the Supreme Court.

"Today's decision amounts to a dangerous halt to progress on this most pressing issue,鈥 Steyer said. 鈥淥ur next president will have the responsibility to select Supreme Court justices, and today鈥檚 decision reminds us how critical these selections will be to keeping our families healthy, safe and economically secure."

One court expert, Sam Bagenstos of the University of Michigan鈥檚 law school, offered analysis that backers of the administration's climate plan might welcome. Bagenstos explained that the five justices in the majority may have been 鈥減ersuaded鈥 that the regulation 鈥渨ould require significant investments from businesses and that those businesses shouldn't have to make those investments before the courts have a chance to decide whether the rules are consistent with the law.鈥

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