Appeals Court Hears Challenge To Obama Power-Plant Emissions Rule

Sep 27, 2016
Originally published on September 27, 2016 10:29 am

A panel of judges Tuesday is hearing a case that could change the future of the power industry.

The D.C. Circuit is hearing an appeal of the Clean Power Plan, an Obama administration rule that would restrict carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants.

The Clean Power Plan may be the most ambitious carbon regulation proposed to date in the U.S. The outcome of this case has the potential to shut down a large chunk of existing coal-fired power plants and it will have a big impact on coal-producing states.

The plan would require a 32 percent cut in carbon emissions from power plants by 2030, although individual states have their own targets which in some cases are much stricter. Twenty-four states have sued the Environmental Protection Agency over the rule, arguing that it would hurt their economies and make power more expensive for consumers.

Arguments also focus on whether the rule is constitutional — if it represents federal overreach — whether the EPA can regulate a pollutant under two different sections of the Clean Air Act and whether the agency changed the plan too much between the draft of the rule and the final version.

Originally, a panel of just three circuit court judges was scheduled to hear the case, but Tuesday's hearing is before the full court.

The Supreme Court put the Clean Power Plan on hold earlier this year. And with the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in February, the circuit court's ruling could ultimately decide the case if the Supreme Court is evenly divided or decides not to take up the case.

Stephanie Joyce is with Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America's energy issues.

Copyright 2016 Wyoming Public Radio Network. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio Network.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Today, a panel of judges is going to hear a case that could change the future of the power industry in this country. The D.C. Circuit Court here in Washington is hearing an appeal of the Clean Power Plan. This is an Obama administration rule that would restrict carbon emissions from coal and gas-fired power plants. Reporter Stephanie Joyce is with Inside Energy. That's a public media collaboration focusing on energy issues. And she is in Washington covering this case and joins me in the studio.

Hey, Stephanie.

STEPHANIE JOYCE, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So you were really talking this up when we were outside the studio coming in here, saying that, I mean, this could have huge implications for a major industry in this country - not exaggerating, you're telling me.

JOYCE: Yeah, this is a big deal. You know, the outcome of this court case really has the potential to shut down a huge chunk of coal-fired power plants in this country, and it will also have a very big impact on coal-producing states in the U.S.

So the Clean Power Plan is really the most ambitious carbon regulation to come out of the Obama administration, actually, really probably the most ambitious carbon regulation proposed to date in the United States. It requires a 32 percent cut in carbon emissions from power plants by 2030, although individual states have their own requirements and targets, which are in some cases much stricter than that. And so two dozen states have sued the EPA over this rule, which I think gives you some sense of its magnitude.

GREENE: These are states that would basically make the argument, if you shut down these power plants, it could hurt the economy. It could hurt jobs in our state and so forth.

JOYCE: Exactly, lots of arguments against this, including, you know, this will hurt our industries, like our coal industry. This will make power more expensive for consumers, although the EPA argues the opposite of that. So people are opposing this for a variety of different reasons, but there's really a lot of opposition.

GREENE: Is there one legal question that there's disagreement on that this really rests on?

JOYCE: This doesn't really rest on a single legal argument.

GREENE: OK.

JOYCE: You're going to hear opponents argue against this in a number of ways, today. You know, everything from the notion that this is unconstitutional to super technical arguments about whether the EPA can regulate pollutants under two different sections of the Clean Air Act. You're also going to hear an argument today about whether the EPA basically changed too much between the draft of this rule and the final version of this rule and whether they gave adequate notice of that.

GREENE: Oh, well, we're really getting into legal nitty-gritty. But the unconstitutional - that's a word that probably refers to the larger argument by someone in the Republican Party that President Obama has overreached his executive authority. And this is one example of that in their mind.

JOYCE: This is certainly a prime example of what people would say is federal overreach, yes.

GREENE: OK, so what exactly is happening in this courtroom? This is a full D.C. Circuit Court of judges that will hear this case today?

JOYCE: Yes, and that's highly unusual. The court was supposed to hear this case back in May, and that was going to be in front of a panel of just three judges. They decided back in May that, in fact, the full court would hear this case. And I think that obviously signals how important this is. And people are going to be watching these oral arguments very closely to see, you know, what questions the judges ask and whether, you know, they give any signal of which way they might rule.

This is a particularly important hearing because with Justice Scalia's death earlier this year, this could be the final time this case is heard. This case was always expected to go to the Supreme Court. But, you know, this court's ruling could end up being the one that holds if the Supreme Court is divided or decides not to take up the case.

GREENE: Oh, you're saying because of Scalia's death, it could be 4-4 of the justices of the Supreme Court, and that would basically mean that whatever this lower court decides is what will hold.

JOYCE: Exactly.

GREENE: Got it. So that really does tell us how important this court decision could be. Talking to reporter Stephanie Joyce - she is with Wyoming Public Radio and also Inside Energy, which is a public media collaboration focusing on energy issues. Stephanie, thanks a lot.

JOYCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.