Western states react strongly to Supreme Court stay of Clean Power Plan

Some states stop all work on cutting greenhouse gases but others forge ahead.

 

Arizona’s air pollution agency had planned a full schedule for its meeting Wednesday on President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Environmentalists, electric companies and others were gathering to discuss how the state should reduce greenhouse gases from its electricity sector. But that agenda was jettisoned on Tuesday evening, when the Supreme Court made the extraordinary decision to stay the rule. Instead, “the Supreme Court stay (became) the central issue,” said Eric Massey, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s air quality division director. “Wow, this was not expected.”

States across the West reacted abruptly to the surprising news that the federal rule was now on hold. While some cancelled efforts to devise state plans, others vowed to keep working. More than a dozen states (including Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado) and industries asked for the stay after a lower court had rejected a request to stay the rule and scheduled arguments on it for June.

The Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce emissions from electricity generation 32 percent by 2030, is the cornerstone of President Obama’s effort to fight climate change. It was also the centerpiece of the U.S. commitment to reduce greenhouse gases that helped Obama lead the world to a new international climate agreement in Paris in December.

The courts’ final say on the power plant rule likely will not come until a new president sits in the White House. But in the meantime, states’ reactions varied widely. States with Democratic governors were more likely to commit to climate action and continue working on the rule, while states with Republican governors were more apt to ditch their efforts.

Valmont Generating Station Boulder, Colorado. It's last coal-fired unit will be shut down in 2017 as a result of a state law. By Carolannie. CC/Flickr.

In Colorado, the Department of Public Health and Environment announced it would push forward to develop a blueprint for greenhouse gas reduction to “ensure that the state is not left at a disadvantage if the courts uphold all or part of the Clean Power Plan.” But Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman opposes the rule and was one of the officials from 29 states that had asked the Supreme Court for the stay. She said the decision shows the high court agrees with her that the “federal government is ignoring the limits on its own power.”

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, tweeted his disapproval of the high court’s 5-4 ruling: “As the world gets hotter, these justices appear tone-deaf.” California laws compel action, including a 2015 law requiring that half of the state’s electricity come from renewable power by 2030. “California will not slow down our drive for clean air, renewable energy, and the good jobs that come from investing in green technologies," said Mary Nichols, who chairs California’s Air Resources Board.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said his state is already suffering from the impacts of climate change, such as reduced snowpack and ocean acidification, and “cannot afford to wait any longer for federal action.” And in Oregon, a committee of the state legislature late this week approved a bill that if adopted would double the state’s renewable energy supply.

“There’s a lot that’s happening already outside of the Clean Power Plan,” former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter told High Country News. Ritter has been convening meetings of governors and utilities from across the West to help them understand and implement the Clean Power Plan.

Bill Ritter has been convening Western states and utilities to help them understand the Clean Power Plan. Courtesy National Association of State Energy Officials. CC/Flickr
But Ritter conceded that the Supreme Court decision takes the wind out of the sails of his multi-state effort that had brought opponents and supporters of the rule together. He expected to cancel a meeting planned for next month. He also predicted that all work on implementing the Clean Power Plan will stop in most Western states, including Montana, Wyoming and Utah.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, announced he was putting the Clean Power Plan on hold because he thinks it’s unfair to his state. But Bullock vowed to work to address climate change and shift to cleaner energy “on our own terms.” Utah announced it is suspending its sessions with stakeholders and cancelling three meetings planned for this spring.  Wyoming said it would focus the energies of its Department of Environmental Quality elsewhere.

Idaho, which doesn’t have any coal-fired power plants, wasn’t required to make big reductions under the rule.  But the state imports a lot of electricity from coal-fired power plants in other states, and state officials recently had been busy trying to assess the implication of the Clean Power Plan for that imported power. “This rule is complex. It involves coordination among agencies that haven’t had to work together,” said Carl Brown, Idaho’s air quality rules coordinator. “We’ll do our best to go forward, but this is definitely a delay.”

At its meeting on Wednesday, the Arizona agency got all kinds of feedback. Some utility representatives pushed the agency to stop all work, while some environmentalists urged it to continue full steam ahead. Although Massey said meetings with stakeholders will continue for now, he predicted the state likely will hold off on making decisions on the shape of its plan until after the lower court and the Supreme Court rule. “We have no long-term strategy at this time,” Massey added.

Harvard law professor Jody Freeman, who worked in the White House early in the Obama presidency, advised states to keep working on their plans “so they’re not behind the eight ball” if the courts uphold the rule.

She said that opponents to the rule are forecasting that the Supreme Court will eventually reject it because it’s nearly unprecedented for the court to stay a federal regulation when no court has yet ruled on its legality. But she said that’s a premature conclusion, because no court has heard arguments. If the Supreme Court does eventually reject the rule, she said it again will fall to Congress to deal with climate change.  “That’s why the election is so important; it’s not just the president but the Senate and all the rest,” she said.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent.