Legal Battle Over Obama’s Clean Power Plan Advances

Today, a federal court is hearing long-awaited oral arguments for and against the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the Obama administration’s landmark climate change initiative that has been mired in controversy.

Created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the CPP establishes the first-ever regulations to cut carbon pollution from existing U.S. power plants. The CPP allows states to devise their own plans to meet the rules, and the climate change initiative is expected to create a boom in renewable energy development.

However, a coalition of over two dozen states and other groups sued the EPA after the CPP was formally published, arguing among other things, that the federal initiative is an illegal overreach of the EPA’s power under the Clean Air Act and that the new standards will cripple the coal industry. Meanwhile, other states and local governments, as well as myriad environmental and clean energy groups, have joined the EPA as allies in defense of the CPP.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of the CPP’s implementation until the lawsuit is sorted out in court. Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will hear oral arguments from both sides. Signifying the importance of the case, 10 of the circuit court judges will take part in the hearing, rather than the usual panel of three judges.

Six of the participating judges are Democratic appointees and the remaining four Republican appointees. (The court’s 11th judge, Chief Judge Merrick Garland, had recused himself from the case beforehand, as he is Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court.)

The Obama administration has remained confident that the CPP will be found legal and be fully implemented. In a recent blog post, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy wrote, “The plan rests on a strong legal and technical foundation and is consistent with Supreme Court decisions, EPA’s statutory authority, and air pollution standards that have been put in place to tackle other pollution problems.”

In the lead-up to the proceedings, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) issued a statement in support of the CPP.

“When it comes to fighting climate change – a grave environmental and national security threat – it’s critically important for the United States to lead by example. The Clean Power Plan does exactly that and should be upheld on its merits,” said Tom Kimbis, interim president of SEIA.

He later stated, “We expect that the court will correctly determine that the EPA has acted well within its authority under the Clean Air Act and look forward to its decision ultimately upholding this critical rule.”

Meanwhile, CPP opponents also appeared anxious to get their day in court. A press release from West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who helped launch the lawsuit, said the AG “will lead a broad coalition into court for its fight against President Obama’s job-killing and unlawful [Clean] Power Plan.”

“The coalition will argue EPA exceeded its congressional authority by transforming the nation’s energy industry, double regulating coal-fired power plants and forcing states to fundamentally shift their energy portfolios away from coal-fired generation,” the release continued. “Furthermore, the coalition will argue the U.S. Constitution prohibits any attempt by the federal government to commandeer and coerce the states into carrying out federal law.”

Although today’s oral arguments have long been anticipated, the circuit court is not expected to make its decision for quite some time. Further complicating matters, the court’s ruling will almost certainly be appealed and sent to the U.S. Supreme Court, which still has a vacant seat following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this year. If the Supreme Court issues a tied vote – a possibility unless a new Supreme Court justice is appointed – the circuit court’s ruling would hold.

UPDATE – Wednesday, Sept. 28: According to multiple reports, although the judges grilled representatives from both sides of the argument throughout Tuesday, it remains unclear which way the court will eventually vote.


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