What the Supreme Court's Power Plant Order Means for Climate Action

The Supreme Court unexpectedly put a temporary halt on the Obama administration's plan to limit carbon pollution from power plants. The carbon limits--known as the Clean Power Plan--are designed to check the largest source of the heat-trapping pollution that's driving dangerous climate change.

The coal industry and conservative state attorneys general have tried to undermine the plan at every turn. They took the unusual step of appealing to the Supreme Court even before any lower court ruled on the legal merits, and the High Court took the even more extraordinary step of granting them a "stay" -- a temporary break in implementation -- while legal challenges to the plan are decided on the merits.

This is an unprecedented decision. Legal scholars can't find one prior case where the Supreme Court has blocked a federal health or environmental standard--or any other form of regulation--before the lower courts have been heard from.

In the end, the Clean Power Plan should prevail in court and big polluters held accountable for fueling climate change--and the extreme drought, floods and storms it is unleashing on our communities. The vast majority of Americans want climate action, and they will help push it forward.

In the meantime, here is how the Supreme Court ruling will shape near-term events.

Next Steps in the Legal Challenge

In June, the D.C. Circuit court will hear oral arguments in the challenge to the Clean Power Plan and decide the case within several months. If the D.C. Circuit upholds the Clean Power Plan, we expect the coal industry and its allies to appeal that ruling to the Supreme Court, which would complete its review some time in 2017 or 2018. The "stay" of implementation will last until the final ruling.

NRDC is confident, however, that the Supreme Court ultimately will uphold the Clean Power Plan. The Court has already ruled three times that the EPA has the authority and responsibility to limit greenhouse gas pollution. It rooted this decision in the fundamental goal of the 45-year-old Clean Air Act: to protect Americans from air pollution that puts us in danger. Climate change endangers our health, our communities, our children and our planet.

Many States Continue to Plan for Carbon Pollution Cuts

Less than 48 hours after the Supreme Court's ruling, at least a dozen governors, from California to Virginia, and from Colorado to Pennsylvania, announced that they will continue developing their plans to limit power plant carbon pollution. As Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton said, the decision "does nothing to diminish our resolve in Minnesota to keep moving forward on clean energy initiatives, including the development of our state's Clean Power Plan."

While the legal planning deadlines for Clean Power Plan will likely shift, power companies could still be required to begin meeting carbon pollution limits in 2022. The states that stay on track with their planning process now will be ready to move quickly when the clock starts ticking on implementation again.

Utilities Aren't Slowed Down by Court's Pause

In the two days after the Supreme Court decision, many leaders in the utility sector made statements in favor of reducing carbon emissions. Edison Electric Institute's Vice President for Environment Quin Shea said the court's move "doesn't really change anything." Pacific Gas and Electric, expressed disappointment with the Supreme Court's decision, saying "we believe EPA has ample legal authority to pursue the Clean Power Plan."

Many utilities recognize that shifting to lower-carbon energy makes economic sense. They are increasing investments in clean energy instead of fossil fuels. They are retiring coal plants because of natural gas production, declining costs for wind and solar power, and public health standards. And they are designing large-scale energy efficiency programs--the most cost-effective way to cut carbon pollution. For many companies, moving forward with the Clean Power Plan process makes good business sense.

Americans Want Climate Action to Continue

The U.S. has already launched an unstoppable shift away from dirty fossil fuels to safer, clean energy resources. The Supreme Court's disappointing stay will not reverse that course. Americans from all walks of life--from mayors to business executives to medical experts to frontline community leaders--will help climate action move forward.

And they will raise their voices to ensure government officials stay on course. Seven in every ten Americans want the next president to address climate change. Many have expressed outrage that the Supreme Court order will slow progress. They expect state and national leaders to go beyond current climate commitments, not get stalled out by roadblocks thrown up by fossil fuel companies. These concerned citizens will help ensure our country continues moving swiftly into the low-carbon future.

Written with Emily Cousins

About the Authors

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz

Chief Program Officer

Join Us