Supreme Court blocks Obama's climate rule for power plants

The Supreme Court has blocked President Obama's landmark climate rule for power plants, dealing a major blow to the president's climate agenda. 

In an order released Tuesday night, the court said it is placing a stay on the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants while industry and state lawsuits move forward.

The court granted the request in a 5-4 vote on Tuesday night, saying the rule was on hold until the circuit court reviews it and Supreme Court appeals are exhausted. The court’s four liberal justices dissented from the decision.

The rule — the Clean Power Plan — is the main plank of Obama's climate change agenda. It’s designed to cut carbon pollution from the electricity sector by 32 percent over 2005 levels by 2030 by assigning states individual reduction targets based on their energy mix.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement that the administration disagrees with the order, but “we remain confident that we will prevail” when the rule is argued on its merits.

A senior administration official downplayed the decision, calling it “a temporary procedural determination that does nothing to affect first our confidence in the legal soundness of this rule.” Another official said the White House is “very surprised” by the decision, but has “complete confidence that the rule is lawful.”

The stay means Obama will likely leave office with the fate of his premier climate policy undecided.

The circuit court plans to hear arguments on the rule in June, meaning the Supreme Court probably won’t get a chance to hear or rule on the regulation until after Obama’s term ends in January.

It also elevates the Clean Power Plan’s status as a major issue in the presidential election.

Democratic candidates Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonThird-party candidate McMullin: We can win Idaho and Wyoming Clinton, Kaine raise over 0M in October Local leaders turning the heat up on Citizens United MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersPicking longtime fixer as chief of staff proves Clinton hasn't changed The Trail 2016: Wikissues Brent Budowsky: An epic battle for the future of Congress MORE have pledged to protect the rule — and expand on Obama’s climate work — if elected in November, while Republican candidates have been openly hostile to both the power plant rule and federal climate regulations in general. 

Obama, bullish on the rule’s legality in the face of certain lawsuits, took the plan with him to Paris last year for a major climate conference focused on carbon reduction. The Clean Power Plan is the centerpiece of the American commitment to the agreement reached there. 

The decision means that the EPA cannot enforce the rule until the litigation against it is finished.

It also signals that the court believes that the states, companies and groups suing the EPA are likely to win their case when its merits are considered.

The order from the court is extraordinarily unprecedented. While court often blocks rules temporarily, lawyers on all sides said the Supreme Court has never done so when a lower court refused to.

A coalition of 26 states, led by West Virginia, asked for the stay as part of a legal strategy against the regulation in federal court. They argued that the rule would hurt them in irreversible ways during the litigation process.

“If this court does not enter a stay, the plan will continue to unlawfully impose massive and irreparable harms upon the sovereign states, as well as irreversible changes in the energy markets,” they wrote to the Supreme Court last month. Various business groups joined in asking for the stay.

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the main court hearing the states’ challenge, refused to block the rule in January, saying the litigants hadn’t met the stringent requirements for such an extraordinary action. That spurred them to appeal to the nation’s highest court.

The EPA said the rule was on sound legal footing, arguing it had the power to regulate power plant carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. 

“The plan is fully consistent with the Clean Air Act, and relies on the same time-tested state-federal partnership that, since 1970, has reduced harmful air pollution by 70 percent, while the U.S. economy has tripled,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyEPA aims to improve environmental protections for minorities Administration should finalize proposed changes to strengthen the Regional Haze Rule Global climate pact may bump into Senate roadblock MORE wrote in an October blog post.

But several states and interest groups sued against the rule, saying the EPA overstepped its legal boundaries. 
When the circuit court denied state and industry stay requests in January, it prompted litigants to take the rare step of asking the Supreme Court to block the rule while litigation went forward.
Opponents of the rule were elated at the decision by the justices.

“We are thrilled that the Supreme Court realized the rule’s immediate impact and froze its implementation, protecting workers and saving countless dollars as our fight against its legality continues,” said West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who’s leading the court fight for opponents.

Green groups, which have rallied by the climate rule, put on a positive front Tuesday night. 

“We are confident the courts will ultimately uphold the Clean Power Plan on its merits,” said David Doniger, the director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

—This story was last updated at 10:20 p.m.