Supreme Court’s pause jumbles the political debate

Source: Amanda Reilly, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Supreme Court’s decision to freeze the Obama administration’s signature carbon rule will likely shape the political debate on climate change on Capitol Hill and in the upcoming presidential elections, lawmakers yesterday predicted.

On the one hand, House Republicans may not be as gung-ho about going after the Obama administration’s climate agenda. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), a vocal critic of U.S. EPA, yesterday said that he felt comfortable putting the carbon program on the backburner.

Democrats pushing for climate action, on the other hand, said that the Supreme Court ruling means they’ll push the Obama administration harder for restrictions on leasing for fossil fuels.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), the leader of a 60-member House climate caucus, said he hoped the ruling would also spur more dialogue between moderate GOP members who favor climate action and Democrats to find a path forward.

On Tuesday evening, the Supreme Court decided in a stunning 5-4 ruling to freeze U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which compels states to develop plans to lower carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants (Greenwire, Feb. 9).

Whitfield, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power, told E&E Daily he was pleased with the Supreme Court decision and happy to focus on other priorities.

“The Supreme Court did a lot more than we could do,” Whitfield said, noting all the hearings that House Republicans have held and legislation they have tried to push through to President Obama.

“So we’re not going to do a lot right now because EPA cannot move forward to implement this until the courts have rendered their decision,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), however, yesterday vowed to keep fighting the rule in Congress. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), another key opponent of the rule, said that the decision wouldn’t necessarily stop Obama from issuing other potentially expensive regulations, “so I don’t think that’s necessarily going to stop us either.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said that the halt on the Clean Power Plan “brings new urgency” to the Obama administration’s moratorium on coal leasing.

The Department of the Interior last month announced the ban on new leases on federal lands while it studies coal mining’s climate and other environmental impacts (Greenwire, Jan. 15).

Lowenthal, who chairs the Congressional Safe Climate Caucus, said he saw room for the administration to halt leasing on federal lands without getting in trouble with the Supreme Court.

“We cannot be using federal lands now to keep enhancing the coal industry,” Lowenthal said.

In an issue brief, ClearView Energy Partners predicted that the Supreme Court decision would rally Republicans and heighten the importance among Democrats of electing a Democratic president.

It could also heighten the importance of another legislative effort “in the long-forgotten tradition of the 2009 Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill,” ClearView wrote, referring to the failed climate legislation that Democrats tried to push through.

But Lowenthal said not to expect anything of the sort happening anytime soon.

“Would it be good for us to come together and do a cap and trade and do a mechanism by which we can actually fund these programs in Congress, something similar to what California has? Yes,” he said. “I still think, though, that’s a long shot at this point.”

Lowenthal said he was encouraged by the recent creation of the House’s first bipartisan climate caucus. On Monday, Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) announced the Climate Solutions Caucus aimed at finding policies to address climate change (E&E Daily, Feb. 9). He said he hoped it would lead to common ground on climate change.

“We’ve got to start that discussion,” he said.

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision, Mike Boots, former director of the Council on Environmental Quality in the Obama administration, encouraged Democrats to look to the bipartisan energy bill in the Senate for direction on finding common ground.

The bill contains items such as infrastructure and energy efficiency that don’t necessarily carry the climate “scarlet letter” but where compromise could be found, he said at an event yesterday evening hosted by George Washington University.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who co-authored the cap-and-trade bill while he was in the House, said yesterday that he believed the Supreme Court ruling would “escalate” climate change to national politics as the presidential election approaches.

Given the freeze on the rule, the next administration would be responsible for implementing the Clean Power Plan if it’s not ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court.

“It’ll be a much greater discussion about the issue because so much is now at stake,” he said.

Markey said the decision was good for Democrats in a sense because they believe they are winning the public on climate change and clean energy.

“Issues of wind, solar and efficiency, they poll well at the very highest level,” he said. “So I think this is a good debate for us to be having.”

Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.