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The U.S. Supreme Court on February 9 threw a roadblock in the path of the most important piece of climate regulation that the United States has offered, possibly jeopardizing its ability to meet climate change goals set last December in Paris. The court’s move puts a stay on an Environmental Protection Agency plan to require electricity-generating power plants to cut carbon by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
The court’s conservative justices are so worried about agency overreach that they’re threatening the strongest national response the United States has to offer on the global issue of climate change.
While the Supreme Court ruling has been described as exceptional, the best way to describe the decision is backward-looking. Specifically, the justices were looking back to their 2015 case, Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency, in which they ruled that the EPA, when enforcing the Clean Air Act, had not appropriately considered costs to power plants. This ruling came after many power plants had already invested in upgrading to lower emissions, however. It now seems that, anticipating that they will reach a similar decision on climate change goals, the conservative justices decided to run interference and save the coal industry some money—whatever the ultimate cost to the planet.
The ruling appears to anticipate continued meddling by the court in EPA efforts to control pollution. Justice Kagan’s dissent of the 2015 ruling described the decision as “micromanagement” and “a peculiarly blinkered way for a court to assess the lawfulness of an agency’s rulemaking.”
In Colorado, county commissioner Jill Ryan explained, "It's really in our best interest to move forward. We have so many sunny days in Colorado that solar power just makes sense, and green industry is just starting to boom in Colorado." This movement is occurring in spite of the fact that Colorado’s Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman was one of the 27 mostly Republican state attorneys general in the suit against the E.P.A. (Colorado’s governor John Hickenlooper did not support her in joining the suit.)
Coal is going down, no matter how the Supreme Court rules. Companies, cities, universities, and states are all driving what Slate’s Daniel Gross describes as “coal nullification”—moving away from the dirty fuel. The industry’s market share, in the age of cheap natural gas and burgeoning wind and solar, is losing ground, falling from 38 percent in November 2013 to 29.2 percent in November 2015.
Furthermore, according to Yale Climate Opinion, 64 percent of the public supports strict CO2 limits on coal-fired power plants, including people hailing from states involved in the suit against the EPA.
The fight for clean air and an appropriate response to C02-driven climate change is moving forward, whether the U.S. Supreme Court likes it or not. While the national-level ruling is disheartening, action at the local and state levels shows that progress is happening despite powerful energy interests which can afford to create legal roadblocks every step of the way.
Mrill Ingram is online media editor at The Progressive.