Supreme Court Blocks Implementation of Landmark EPA Energy Regulation

The United States Supreme Court has granted a stay on implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan (CPP) until the legality of the order can be resolved in Court.  The decision came as a surprise setback for the Obama administration, which had hoped to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants using the EPA regulatory structure.  The CPP may still go into effect, but its proponents will have to wait until the measure works its way through legal challenges in federal court before implementation is possible.

EPA’s Clean Power Plan Faces Legal Challenge

In June of 2014, the Obama administration announced a series of aggressive restrictions on coal-fired power plants which were designed to drastically cut carbon pollution by 30% by 2030.  The regulations were designed by officials at the EPA, and hoped to eventually close a large portion of the country’s 600 coal-fired plants and drastically change the way Americans produce and consume electricity.  After failing to generate sufficient interest in climate change legislation with Congress, the President directed the EPA to pass landmark regulations designed to shift Americans away from coal and towards more sustainable forms of energy such as solar or wind power.

The CPP, which was cited by the President as an example of regulation that the rest of the world should follow during last year’s climate change summit in Paris, could become Mr. Obama’s signature environmental policy if it is successfully implemented, but almost immediately after it came into existence coal-producing states issued a federal legal challenge.  Led by West Virginia, 29 states filed a lawsuit in federal court which alleged the CPP represented a misuse of executive power which would cause significant damage to local economies which heavily rely on the coal industry.

The United States Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia refused to grant a stay on the order, sending the question up to the Supreme Court. 

Supreme Court Temporarily Blocks EPA Emissions Regulations

Although the substantive challenge to the CPP is still working its way through the federal court system, the 29 states challenging the regulation requested the Supreme Court prevent its implementation until the matter is settled.  In a 5 – 4 vote along ideological lines the Justices agreed with the stay of execution, and put a temporary hold on the CPP while the legal system reviews the EPA action.  The five conservative justices provided the majority vote while the four liberal judges voted to allow the CPP to continue despite the legal challenge. 

As a result of the stay, the EPA will not be allowed to pursue any additional actions to plan, implement, or enforce the CPP until a legal ruling permits the continued application of the regulation.  Currently, the substantive question about the legality of the CPP is scheduled to be heard by the Court of Appeals in DC on June 2, which means there will not be a ruling on the issue until the late summer or early fall.  After that ruling, the matter will likely be fast tracked to the Supreme Court where the Justices will have to decide whether or not to get involved on the question of whether or not the CPP is constitutional.

The Court’s decision to enforce a temporary stay comes as somewhat of a surprise because it is very rare that the Supreme Court will halt an agency regulation during the course of a legal challenge; typically a regulation will remain in place until a court of law issues a final ruling on its constitutionality. 

Supreme Court’s Stay on Obama Environmental Action May Indicate Ultimate Ruling

The ultimate decision on the legality of the CPP is a long way off, however, the Court’s unusual decision to grant a stay on the regulation’s implementation suggests the five conservative Justices have serious reservations about allowing the law to exist as currently written.  Both the President and the EPA have hailed the CPP has an innovative action which authorizes unparalleled levels of government control over state carbon emissions.  While proponents of the regulation hail its aggressiveness as necessary to combat rapid climate change which is harmful to the environment, its opponents argue that it pushes federal authority too far.

The Obama Administration responded to the stay of execution on the CPP with positive messages about the ultimate outcome of the federal challenge, however, the regulation is far from a certainty.  The level of federal authority authorized by the implantation and administration of the CPP pushes the boundaries of permissible EPA action, and the government has a long and difficult road to prove its unprecedented intervention in the energy sector is legally justifiable.

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