Tim Profeta on the Clean Power Plan’s Day in Court

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What was scheduled to be about 3.5 hours turned into nearly seven on Tuesday as 10 judges heard oral arguments in a rare “en banc” review of the Clean Power Plan in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The controversial Clean Power Plan, based on Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, was first proposed in June 2014 to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants. In setting those limits, the rule considers the ability to shift power generation to cleaner sources. Its supporters argue that the act gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in this way. Its challengers allege the rule amounts to executive overreach because the EPA is effectively forcing owners and operators of coal plants to invest in their competitors—cleaner natural gas or renewable energy. They also contend that the rule undercuts the reliability of the electric grid by forcing coal-fired power plants offline. Moreover, opponents argue that EPA cannot regulate power plants under Section 111(d) in the first place because EPA already limits emissions like mercury under Section 112 of the act. Until these challenges are resolved, the Supreme Court has delayed implementation of the rule.

I was at the Tuesday hearing and wrote about some early takeaways for Bloomberg Government. From my seat in the courtroom, they included:

  • It’s now clear that the EPA possesses the authority to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The question now is whether the methods used by the EPA were permitted under the act. As Judge Tatel noted, the Supreme Court “did that work” in Massachusetts v. EPA.
  • The case is caught up in a larger judicial discussion about how much deference to grant the executive branch. As Congress increasingly fails to legislate on major political issues of our day, the executive branch has been looking to existing statutes for the authority to address problems. But the courts are debating whether to provide the traditional broad deference to agencies as they pursue these initiatives, or whether “major” political issues require more scrutiny. EPA’s Clean Power Plan evoked this debate, and as a result may create more precedent that will guide future presidents on the extent of their power.
  • The court repeatedly reflected on the Supreme Court’s AEP v. Connecticut ruling, which established that the EPA had the authority to regulate existing power plants and thereby forbade Connecticut from suing those plant owners directly. Any victory for the petitioners in this case will need to explain why that recognition of authority in AEP v. Connecticut does not presume that the EPA possesses the authority underlying the Clean Power Plan.
  • Several jurists expressed concern that industry was arguing that the EPA could not consider the shifting of generation to cleaner sources in setting the standard, but nonetheless wanted that low cost option as a means of complying with the rule. Can the industry have its cake and eat it, too?
  • The judges’ proficiency in understanding the electric grid was impressive, clearly aided by legal briefs from grid operators. What was not as clear, however, is whether this proficiency had convinced them that managing the generation sources across that system constituted the “best system of emissions reduction” under the act.

Although it is difficult to guess a case’s outcome from any oral argument, all in all the government came through it with clear indications of support from three or four judges. At least four other judges, however, either did not speak or evaluated the case in such a Socratic manner that their positions were more mysterious. With six votes needed for a win, supporters of the rule will be holding their breath until the opinion appears. Overall, the final word on the Clean Power Plan may not come until 2018 or later.

By Tim Profeta; originally posted in The Climate Post, which offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.