Court Rejects a Bid to Block Coal Plant Regulations

Source: By CORAL DAVENPORT, New York Times • Posted: Friday, January 22, 2016

Hundreds of tons of coal in train cars at the Spring Creek Mine, a Cloud Peak Energy property in southern Montana, in 2013. Credit Kevin Moloney for The New York Times 

In a significant victory for President Obama, a federal appeals panel on Thursday rejected an effort by 27 states and dozens of corporations and industry groups to block the administration’s signature regulation on emissions from coal-fired power plants while a lawsuit moves through the courts.

The rule, issued last summer by the Environmental Protection Agency, is at the heart of Mr. Obama’s efforts to tackle climate change. It would require each state to significantly cut greenhouse gas pollution from electric power plants, the nation’s largest source of such emissions.

Once fully in place, the regulation — which would cut emissions from existing power plants by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 — could transform the electricity system, closing hundreds of heavily polluting coal-fired plants and sharply increasing production of wind and solar powers.

But the 27 states, many of which have economies that rely on coal mining or coal-fired power, have sued the administration to kill the plan. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit set June 2 to hear arguments in that case, although it is widely expected to be ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, most likely in 2017.

A truck carrying coal from a seam in Spring Greek Mine in Montana in May 2013. Credit Kevin Moloney for The New York Times 

“We are pleased that the court has rejected petitioners’ attempts to block the Clean Power Plan from moving forward while litigation proceeds,” said Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman. “We look forward to continuing to work with states and other stakeholders taking steps to implement the Clean Power Plan.”

By rejecting the petition on Thursday, a three-judge panel of the court required states to move forward with plans to shut down polluting coal plants and build new wind and solar sources.

“Obviously, we’re extremely pleased, since today’s order rejects extreme mischaracterizations of the Clean Power Plan and efforts to delay its implementation,” said Sean Donohue, a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’re not that surprised, since E.P.A. was able to show that the rule rests on a firm statutory and factual footing, and that the agency built into it ample time to allow states, regulated sources and the agency to work together to reduce carbon emissions.”

Mr. Donohue said Thursday’s action made him optimistic that the courts would ultimately uphold the rule.

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia, a coal mining state that has led the legal push against Mr. Obama’s climate change agenda, noted that the court did not rule on the merits of the lawsuit.

“We are disappointed in today’s decision but believe we will ultimately prevail in court,” Mr. Morrisey said. “We remain confident that our arguments will prevail as the case continues,” potentially to the Supreme Court, he added.

Opponents of the rule said they were pleased that the court set a relatively quick schedule for hearing the broader case.

“Today’s decision to expedite the legal review of the Obama administration’s electricity regulations indicates that the court agrees that it is important to review the rules quickly,” said Karen Harbert, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy. The chamber is a plaintiff in the case.

“We look forward to presenting our arguments to the court as part of an expedited review process, and we will continue our efforts to halt the E.P.A.’s unprecedented effort to restructure the American economy,” she added.

The court’s decision came as Mr. Obama is pushing forward with a series of initiatives on climate change, in an effort to leave as large a mark on the issue as he can before leaving office in a year.

Last week, the Interior Department announced a moratorium on new leases for coal mining on public lands, part of a review by the agency that is expected to lead to an increase in the rates and royalties charged to mining companies.

As soon as Friday, the department is expected to propose new regulations aimed at curbing the release of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from oil and gas drilling operations on public lands.

On Thursday, the White House also announced that the Department of Housing and Urban Development would award $1 billion in “climate resilience” funding to communities in 13 states to help them rebuild from and prepare for disasters linked to climate change, such as wildfires in California, flooding in Iowa, and hurricanes and extreme storms in Louisiana, New York and New Jersey.