The Obamacare of climate change? States get day in court on EPA plan

President Barack Obama speaks during climate talks in Paris last December.
President Barack Obama speaks during climate talks in Paris last December. AP

A panel of federal judges on Tuesday heard arguments in court for and against the Obama administration’s plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions by a third by 2030.

More than two dozen states sued the Environmental Protection Agency to stop the Clean Power Plan, one of the Obama White House’s signature policies to address climate change.

Those states argue that the EPA overstepped its bounds with the rule and that it would drive up electricity costs, lead to energy shortages and cause economic devastation in communities that produce fossil fuels.

The 18 states that support the EPA reply that the agency did act within its power and that even before the rule takes effect, the market is already moving in the direction of reduced emissions.

Domestic coal production has tumbled in the past several years, particularly in Appalachia, as cheaper western coal and natural gas unlocked by hydraulic fracturing has displaced it.

Utility companies have been reluctant to invest in new coal-fired generation under existing EPA rules, replacing them with natural gas units or rebuilding them with pollution controls that change the kind of coal they can use.

Soon after the Clean Power Plan was unveiled a year ago, states that produce coal that fires power plants, including the top three producers, Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky, took the EPA to court. States that consume large amounts of coal for electricity, including Texas, Missouri and Kansas, weren’t very far behind.

States such as Illinois, California and Washington, which are increasingly reliant on renewable energy, are defending the EPA plan Tuesday before nine judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The court’s chief judge, Merrick Garland, is not participating in the case. Garland is President Barack Obama’s nominee to succeed the late justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court. Garland has yet to receive a required Senate hearing or confirmation vote.

Many observers expected the case to work its way to the Supreme Court. However, with the vacancy created by Scalia’s death in February, the court may not have the five votes that would be needed for it to take the case.

States were supposed to file their Clean Power Plan compliance blueprints by this month. But in a 5-4 vote in February, the Supreme Court put the plan on hold. The fifth vote came from Scalia days before his death.

Some states have continued to work on their compliance plans anyway, while others have scrapped them pending court action.