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Supreme Court to Hear Coal Industry’s Complaint About Emissions Regulations

November 1, 2021 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is headed toward a landmark decision on greenhouse gas emissions as climate change moved to the forefront of international politics Monday.

The Supreme Court plans to hear a case that contests the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to limit coal-fired power plant emissions.

The coal industry accuses the EPA of exceeding its authority under the Clean Air Act, which is the federal law that grants the agency power to regulate polluting industries.

“It has been and remains our position that the Clean Air Act does not provide the EPA with near unfettered authority to issue rules that fundamentally remake the nation’s electricity grids, causing massive electricity reliability and affordability repercussions across our economy,” Ashley Burke, National Mining Association spokesperson, told The Well News.

Instead, if a power plant is emitting more greenhouse gases than environmental laws allow, the EPA should clamp down on each plant individually, she said.

Environmentalists accuse the coal industry of trying to gut regulations designed to prevent the escalating rate of global warming.

“Coal companies and their state allies are asking the Court to strip EPA of any authority under the Clean Air Act to meaningfully reduce the nearly 1.5 billion tons of carbon pollution spewed from the nation’s power plants each year — authority the Court has upheld three times in the past two decades,” the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement.

Strict limits on power plant emissions were set during the Obama administration but rolled back by President Trump.

A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in January reinstated Obama’s Clean Power Plan regulations, which prompted coal industry groups in North Dakota and West Virginia to sue.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case while President Biden flew to Glasgow, Scotland, to meet with world leaders to try to reach an agreement on how to stop global warming. The leaders emerged from previous climate meetings with broad agreement that climate change is a major problem but few firm commitments on getting rid of it.

This time, as climate disasters become more desperate, they hope to hammer out an accord that will be enforceable.

Biden arrived in Scotland for the COP26 summit pledging $555 billion of investment in clean energy and “climate-smart” developments. He hopes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% below 2005 levels within nine years.

“Heading into COP26, President Biden announced the Build Back Better Framework — the largest U.S. effort to combat climate change in American history — alongside his Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal that the president is confident can pass both chambers of Congress and be signed into law,” a White House fact sheet said. 

“The Build Back Better Framework will cut greenhouse gas pollution by well over one gigaton in 2030, reduce clean energy costs for working families, give our kids cleaner air and water, create hundreds of thousands of good-paying, union jobs, and advance environmental justice while investing in a 21st century clean energy economy,” it said.

However, Biden’s plan for protecting the environment still depends on congressional approval. A vote on the Build Back Better Framework is expected this week.

In addition, any Supreme Court ruling on the EPA case would weigh in as another factor in whether the president achieves his goal. It would represent either a big advance or setback for U.S. efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia ruled the EPA wrongly canceled Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan by misinterpreting the Clean Air Act. In its place, Trump’s EPA instituted the 2019 Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which allows the EPA to regulate emissions only at the source within each power plant.

The Clean Power Plan gave the EPA a broad sweep for regulating across the entire coal-fired electrical generating industry.

The Circuit Court ruling gives Biden a nearly clean slate to push out fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy and to participate in the kind of emissions credit-trading programs envisioned at the COP26 summit. The credits are like a permit for countries to emit carbon gases but only on the condition that they simultaneously reduce emissions from previous years.

The ruling also prompted coal industry businesses, associations, and the states of West Virginia and North Dakota to sue, which led the Supreme Court to accept the case on Friday.

They face tough opposition from states like California and New York, electrical utilities such as Consolidated Edison Inc. and National Grid USA, as well as public health and environmental organizations.

Tom can be reached at [email protected]

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