Four Reasons Petitions for Supreme Court Review of Climate Pollution Standards for Power Plants Should Fail

This coming Monday, the Supreme Court will consider hundreds of petitions for review, which ask the Court to take up cases for full consideration during its new term. Among the petitions for review are four from coal companies and states asking the Court to review the D.C. Circuit decision overturning the Trump administration’s rule weakening regulations of carbon pollution from power plants. For multiple reasons the four petitions lack merit.

The Clean Power Plan, adopted in 2015, established the first-ever national limits on climate pollution from existing power plants. In 2019, the Trump administration adopted regulations to repeal the Clean Power Plan and replace it with the “ACE” rule – which did virtually nothing to limit pollution.

This January the D.C. Circuit struck down this attempt, issuing a narrow opinion that explained how ACE misinterpreted specific language in section 111 of the Clean Air Act.

In the months since the D.C. Circuit’s decision, neither the Clean Power Plan nor the Trump administration’s weak replacement rule has been in effect, meaning that no power plants or operators have experienced harm under either rule. Additionally, EPA has been working from a clean slate on new safeguards that will reflect current information about our rapidly changing power sector. Despite this, and the fact that no one is subject to any compliance obligations under the Clean Power Plan or ACE, coal companies and 21 states are asking the Supreme Court to reverse the D.C. Circuit opinion and issue a statutory interpretation that limits EPA’s ability under the Clean Air Act to protect the public from climate pollution.

Effectively, they are asking the Court for an “advisory” opinion — a free-floating legal opinion untethered to any current dispute but intended to constrain future behavior. EDF is part of a coalition of environmental organizations that – along with almost two dozen states and cities, power companies and business associations – opposes this challenge.

Rather than take up this case in order to consider legal theories in the abstract, the appropriate course would be for the Court to allow EPA to complete its new rulemaking, which will be subject to judicial review once finalized. At that time, reviewing courts will be able to assess EPA’s actual application of its Clean Air Act authority in the context of real compliance obligations and a factual record that reflects current realities.

Here are four key reasons that the petitioners’ pleas for Supreme Court review should fail:

Neither the Clean Power Plan nor ACE is in effect — therefore, no one is subject to any requirements under either rule.

Because no compliance obligations are currently in place, no power plant owner or operator is experiencing any harm. On top of this, EPA has made it clear that there is no chance that either rule will be implemented in the future. This is likely one reason why not a single power company – that is, not a single company actually regulated by the rules at issue – is seeking Supreme Court review. Instead, the petitioners in this case are states and fuel suppliers who are using highly politicized rhetoric and unsupported claims that are largely disconnected from the facts on the ground and the merits of the D.C. Circuit opinion. There is no need for the Supreme Court to review permanently defunct pollution controls that are not affecting anyone.

EPA is working on a new and different plan for reducing pollution from power plants from a clean slate.

EPA’s new safeguards will reflect outreach to and information from many stakeholders – including supporters and opponents of the prior rules – and take into account the substantial changes that have occurred in the power sector. Practically, it would make little sense for the Supreme Court to review interpretations underlying the Clean Power Plan and ACE, both now relics, while EPA is actively working on proposing a new set of pollution limits to take their place. Given rapid changes in the power sector in recent years, both the Clean Power Plan and ACE are based on outdated technical records, so the Court’s review would not be informed by the information that EPA needs to consider when developing new protections.

Coal companies and their allies are really asking the Supreme Court to constrain future EPA action – not to resolve a current controversy.

The petitioners are asking Supreme Court to preemptively block EPA from adopting policies that they oppose. Moreover, they have attempted to recast the D.C. Circuit’s narrow opinion — which interprets a specific provision of the Clean Air Act — as presenting broad, politically charged issues the opinion simply does not raise.

The Supreme Court has traditionally refrained from issuing “advisory” opinions where there is no ongoing, practical controversy to resolve. At this point, coal companies and their allies are asking the Court to intervene based on their speculations regarding what action EPA may take — not on any active rule that is in effect. That is not how our system of adjudication works. Since its early days, the Supreme Court has consistently held that our Constitution withholds any such power from federal courts, instead limiting their domain to discrete, active “cases” and “controversies.” Our nation has a system of judicial review, not preview, in part because we have recognized that courts are able to operate better when then have a concrete, ongoing controversy in front of them.

Any forthcoming pollution limits from EPA will be subject to judicial review

To the extent the coal companies and states seeking review believe that a future rule will harm them, they will have a full opportunity to obtain judicial review of that rule once it is finalized. The Clean Air Act, basic principles of administrative law, and a respect for the public rulemaking process all insist that judicial review of agency decisions should follow the agency decisions, not attempt to anticipate them.

In summary, neither the Clean Power Plan nor ACE is in effect, neither rule will ever subject anyone to compliance obligations, and no would-be regulated entities are being harmed. EPA is developing new, updated safeguards that can be challenged in court at the appropriate time. The coal companies and states’ pleas for Supreme Court review at this stage are entirely unwarranted.

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