Bump in the road for US Clean Power Plan?

US President, Barack Obama’s ambitions to tackle US power sector emissions have been put on hold after Supreme Court Justices voted 5-4 in favour of a ‘stay’ on the plan, following a collection of US states and businesses arguing that cutting back on coal would cause harm and fundamentally alter energy markets.

The move means that the Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut US power plant emissions by 32% by 2030 through placing emission limits on US states, will be on hold at least until the US Circuit Court reviews it in June and, more likely, until Obama’s term ends in January 2017. 

Until the plan is reviewed, the US government cannot enforce deadlines for states to comply with emissions regulations – immediately this means that states do not have to meet a September deadline to submit their emission reduction plans to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The move means that the Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut US power plant emissions by 32% by 2030 through placing emission limits on US states, will be on hold at least until the US Circuit Court reviews it in June and, more likely, until Obama’s term ends in January 2017.  Until the plan is reviewed, the US government cannot enforce deadlines for states to comply with emissions regulations – immediately this means that states do not have to meet a September deadline to submit their emission reduction plans to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The outcome of the move was made more uncertain when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a Republican who voted to stay the plan, died shortly after the decision was made.  It is thought that the vacancy of the Supreme Court will not cause the vote to be reviewed but, were a Democrat to take the passing of the plan is more likely.

Obama stated before Scalia’s death that he was ‘very firm’ about the legal footing of the plan.

In any case, the stay means that Obama is likely to leave the White House in January 2017 with the fate of his flagship climate policy uncertain.  Should a Republican win the presidential race it is likely the plan will be scrapped – almost every Republican nominee has actively voiced their opposition to the legislation.

This scenario would then have implications for the COP21 Paris Agreement, as the Clean Power Plan is the backbone of the US’ climate pledge made before Paris.

The EPA has said that it will continue to work with states that decide to go ahead with their plans, regardless of the ruling.

Responding to the ruling, Sam Adams, Director, US Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute said: ‘The Supreme Court’s highly unusual action flies in the face of common sense.  Experts agree that the Clean Power Plan is on solid legal ground and will prevail based on the merits.  We expect this ruling to be only a temporary time out at the plan heads to full implementation.’

Responses from Governors of US states varied, with those dependent on coal supportive of the move, and others dismayed.  California Governor Jerry Brown said: ‘As the world gets hotter and closer to irreversible climate change, these Justices appear tone-deaf as they fiddle with procedural niceties.  This arbitrary roadblock does incalculable damage and undermines America’s climate leadership.’