On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with conservatives seeking to delay the enforcement of President Obama's Clean Power Plan until legal challenges are resolved. The move is a blow to the administration and a victory for the coalition of 27 mostly Republican-led states and industry opponents that call the regulations "an unprecedented power grab."
The temporary stay came from a 5-4 majority of the justices; the high court's four liberal justices said Tuesday they would have denied the request for delay.
The decision is a huge blow for President Obama, who in August called the Clean Power Plan — which would impose carbon dioxide emissions limits on existing power plants — "the single most important step America has ever taken in the fight against global climate change." Already, the administration has imposed carbon limits on future power plants, but this is the first time such limits would be applied to existing ones — the single largest source of carbon pollution in the U.S — by about one-third by 2030.
Conservatives and those with an interest in continuing our dependence on fossil fuels have vigorously opposed the plan on economic grounds. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, once called it "a dagger in the heart of the American middle class." Several states and industry groups have been fighting the plan in court.
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey of coal-dependent West Virginia hailed the court's decision.
"We are thrilled that the Supreme Court realized the rule's immediate impact and froze its implementation, protecting workers and saving countless dollars as our fight against its legality continues," Morrisey said.
In opposing the request for delay, the EPA argued that states had plenty of time to comply with the requirements as the rule is rolled out over the next six years.
"A stay that delays all of the rule's deadlines would postpone reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and thus contribute to the problem of global climate change, even if the rule is ultimately sustained," U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said in legal filings.
Implementation of the rules is considered essential to the United States meeting emissions-reduction targets in COP21’s historic global climate agreement signed in Paris in December. While administration officials admitted they were "surprised" by the court's decision, they acknowledged that "we always assumed this rule would be litigated" as it worked through the planning process, but insisted the ruling will not affect the implementation of the COP21 agreement.
States aren't expected to comply with the new Clean Power Plan limits until 2022, but they are expected to submit their plans for compliance by September.
The Environmental Defense Fund, which is a party to the case, stressed in a statement that the court's decision "does not reflect a decision on the merits" of the plan itself. The Washington, D.C. Circuit Court is slated to review the merits of the lawsuits challenging the Clean Power Plan on June 2.
"The D.C. Circuit court will carry out a careful and expeditious review of the merits over the next few months," Vickie Patton, general counsel the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. "The Clean Power Plan has a firm anchor in our nation's clean air laws and a strong scientific record, and we look forward to presenting our case on the merits in the courts."
A federal appeals court in Washington last month refused to put the plan on hold. That lower court is not likely to issue a ruling on the legality of the plan until months after it hears oral arguments begin on June 2.
President Obama has taken bold strides during his last term to try to ensure the U.S. is equipped to embrace a clean energy future — aside from creating the Clean Power Plan, he rejected the plan for the embattled Keystone XL oil pipeline and last month announced a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands. In his final State of the Union address last month, the President highlighted the successes of cleantech investment — for both the economy and the environment — stressing that the economic benefits alone are sufficient reason to continue to pursue climate action initiatives.