WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday delivered a major blow to President Barack Obama by putting on hold federal regulations to curb carbon dioxide emissions mainly from coal-fired power plants, a plan that N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory has joined other states in challenging in court.
The court voted 5-4 along ideological lines to grant a request by 27 states and various companies and business groups to block the administration’s Clean Power Plan, which also mandates a shift to renewable energy from coal-fired electricity.
The highly unusual move by the justices means the regulations will not be in effect while a court battle continues over their legality.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey described the Supreme Court action on Tuesday as a “historic and unprecedented victory” over the EPA.
McCrory and his environmental secretary Donald van der Vaart have consistently opposed the rules, which they say would not give North Carolina credit for massive reductions in air pollution and carbon dioxide as a result of the Clean Smokestacks legislation, a state law adopted in 2002 that required coal-fired power plants to reduce their emissions drastically. The proposed reductions for North Carolina use 2012 as the “baseline” year, meaning reductions made before then would not count toward the plan.
“We are pleased the Supreme Court recognizes that the federal power plan will dramatically increase North Carolina’s electricity rates with little, if any, environmental benefit,” McCrory said in a statement. “We will continue to fight the Obama administration’s illegal attempts to take over North Carolina’s power system.”
For Obama, executing his climate change strategy would be a key legacy accomplishment as he nears the end of his time in office in January 2017.
House of Representatives Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “The Supreme Court’s deeply misguided decision to stay the implementation of the Clean Power Plan will enable those states that deny climate science to slow progress in reducing the carbon pollution that threatens the health of all Americans.”
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy welcomed the Supreme Court’s move, saying it “has now stopped this illegitimate abuse of power after 27 states revolted against the president’s anti-energy agenda.”
The court action also means that, with Obama leaving office in January 2017, the next president will have a say on whether to continue defending the regulation.
Before that, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which denied a similar stay request last month, will hear oral arguments in the case on June 2 and decide whether the regulations are lawful.
“This is certainly a surprise and it suggests the court has serious concerns” about the regulation, said Jonathan Adler, a professor at Case Western Reserve School of Law.
The brief order from the justices said that the regulations would be on hold until the legal challenge is completed. The court’s five conservatives all voted to block the rule. The order noted that the four liberals would have denied the application.
Under the EPA rule, each state must submit a plan to comply with its emission-reduction target by September 2016 but can also request a two-year extension.
The challengers contended that the Obama administration exceeded its authority under the Clean Air Act, the key law that addresses air pollution. More than a dozen other states and the National League of Cities, which represents more than 19,000 U.S. cities, filed court papers backing the rule.
Jeff Holmstead, a lawyer for coal-powered utilities that challenged the rule, said the court has never before blocked an EPA rule. “To say it’s unusual is a bit of an understatement,” Holmstead added.
Sean Donahue, a lawyer for environmental groups that support the law, said the court action was “surprising and disappointing.” He added that “we remain very confident in the legal and factual foundations for EPA’s rule.”
Van der Vaart, a lawyer who worked in air quality issues for decades at the state environmental agency, has said that the EPA put forth the rules relying on the wrong part of the Clean Air Act, rendering most of the plan unlawful.
“Although the final rule includes some changes made in response to the several million comments that were filed on the draft rule, DENR’s initial review reveals that the rule remains legally flawed. The final rule does not correct the legal frailty that DENR and many leading environmental groups identified in the EPA’s interpretation of this section of the federal Clean Air Act,” van der Vaart said in a statement in August, when the agency was known as DENR.
McCrory officials have said that they intend to submit a state plan to the EPA to comply with the parts of the rule that are legal while fighting the other parts in federal court.
The White House and EPA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Reuters contributed to this report.