The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants on Tuesday. The court, in a 5–4 decision split along party lines, put a stay on enforcement of the Clean Power Plan, which is designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
“We remain confident that we will prevail on the merits,” said the White House in a statement. “Even while the litigation proceeds, EPA has indicated it will work with states that choose to continue plan development and will prepare the tools those states will need.”
But others felt the move could be indicative that the Clean Power Plan will not survive legal scrutiny.
“Should the D.C. Circuit uphold the rule, I think the stay is indicative that the court is likely to want to hear this case,” said Scott Segal, a partner in Bracewell LPP’s Policy Resolution Group. “Even the most ardent supporters would have to concede that this does not bode well for the current rule.”
The EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions stems from the 2007 Supreme Court decision Massachusetts v. EPA, which found that carbon dioxide qualified as a “pollutant” and was subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. But Bloomberg reported that the court’s intervention casts doubt on the legal prospects for the Clean Power Plan, which some utilities, coal miners and more than two dozen states are challenging as an overreach of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority and an intrusion on states’ rights. The D.C. Circuit Court will review the merits of their lawsuits on June 2. The order blocks the Clean Power Plan from taking effect while legal battles play out, making a decision possibly another year or more away.
“A decision overturning the Clean Power Plan would not prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act,” said Jonas Monast, director of the Climate and Energy Program at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “That case focuses on current regulations. It does not call into questions the Supreme Court’s previous finding that greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act.”
De-carbonization of U.S. Power Sector Accelerated in 2015
Energy sector transitions envisioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when it released its Clean Power Plan last year are already occurring at a faster pace than the EPA may have expected as evidenced by Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s (BNEF) 2016 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, which called 2015 a “watershed year in the evolution of US energy.”
According to the report, coal use for electricity generation dropped from 39 percent in 2014 to 34 percent last year, while natural gas edged closer to becoming the largest source of U.S. power, accounting for some 32 percent of U.S. generation in 2015. Along with energy efficiency improvements, notable growth in renewable energy installations, and flat energy demand, that shift has major implications for greenhouse gas emissions reductions but not for consumer costs—at least so far.
“We saw natural gas and coal each provide about one third of U.S. electricity, and this was the smallest contribution we’ve seen from coal within the modern era,” said Colleen Regan, BNEF’s senior analyst for North American power. She noted that the decrease in coal use was attributable not only to cheap gas but also to 14 gigawatts’ worth of coal plant retirements—5 percent of U.S. coal capacity—last year.
Meanwhile, the U.S. renewable energy industry brought online 16 gigawatts of clean energy—68 percent of all new installed capacity—helping drop U.S. energy sector carbon dioxide emissions to their lowest annual level since the mid-1990s in a year that saw retail electric rates fall 1.3 percent in real terms from 2014.
Driving what the report authors suggest is a permanent shift in the U.S. energy sector are technological revolutions in the gas industry, increasingly attractive economics for renewables, and international- and national-level policy directives, including the Clean Power Plan and recent extensions of the investment tax credit for solar power and the production tax credit for wind energy (subscription).
Next Few Decades’ Emissions Trajectory Could Affect Earth for Millennia
A group of 22 researchers, including several of the world’s foremost climate scientists, contend that we have been thinking about climate change far too narrowly by making projections only to the year 2100. In a study published in Nature Climate Change, the group suggests that policy makers should consider the consequences of human emissions on global temperatures and sea level over a far longer time horizon.
“The twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a period during which the overwhelming majority of human-caused carbon emissions are likely to occur, need to be placed into a long-term context that includes the past 20 millennia, when the last Ice Age ended and human civilization developed, and the next ten millennia, over which time the projected impacts of anthropogenic climate change will grow and persist,” they write. “This long-term perspective illustrates that policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems and human societies—not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.”
The study, which looked at climate data from the past 20,000 years and four emissions scenarios for the period 2000 to 2300, demonstrates the effects of near-term policy decisions on the climate system’s inherent lag effects—namely, the high temperature sensitivity of global ice sheets and the centuries-long atmospheric retention of carbon dioxide.
“If carbon dioxide emissions continue unchecked, the carbon dioxide released during this century will commit Earth and its residents to an entirely new climate regime,” the study says.
Report co-author, Thomas Stocker, a climate scientist at the University of Bern, put the long-term view of human emissions bluntly, saying that it sends a “chilling message” about the fossil fuel era’s risks and consequences. “It will commit us to massive adaptation efforts so that for many, dislocation and migration becomes the only option.” The study notes that even if warming falls below the United Nations target of 2 degrees Celsius, 20 percent of the world’s population must migrate away from coasts.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.