Energy & Environment

Court temporarily blocks key Biden climate accounting measure

A federal court has temporarily blocked the Biden administration’s use of a key climate accounting measure — a decision that could have major effects on climate change regulations. 

Judge James Cain, a Trump appointee in Louisiana, issued a preliminary injunction against the use of the “social costs of greenhouse gases” that were instated under the Biden administration. 

The Biden administration last year temporarily returned to Obama-era figures for calculating the costs of these planet-warming gases, and it was expected to soon issue its own findings. 

The Obama-era figures gave much more weight to climate damages than figures used under the Trump administration. 

These “social costs” have been used to help quantify the climate benefits of regulation, or conversely, the climate costs of deregulation, in agency rulemaking. Higher costs of greenhouse gases can be used to justify more stringent regulations. 

In his ruling on Friday, Cain blocked agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Transportation Department and Interior Department from relying on the findings of a White House “Interagency Working Group.”

That group was tasked with calculating its own values, which may have given even greater weight to climate damages, and it had decided to use the pre-Trump figures in the interim.

The ruling also prevents them from relying on any costs that take global damage into account. The Obama-era costs figured in global effects, while the Trump costs did not. 

Cain argued that, in considering the potential harms, “the balance of the injuries weighs substantially in favor” of the 10 states who sued over the rule. 

He also found that a Biden executive order establishing the working group “contradicts Congress’ intent regarding legislative rule-making mandating consideration of the global effects.”

And he said that the use of the metric “directly causes harm” to the states when it’s used to evaluate oil and gas lease sales, since they receive revenues from those sales. 

“The … Estimates artificially increase the cost estimates of lease sales, which in effect, reduces the number of parcels being leased, resulting in the States receiving less in bonus bids, ground rents, and production royalties,” he wrote. 

Cain also found that the order didn’t follow government notice and comment requirements. 

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry (R) hailed Friday’s ruling in a statement. 

“While our fight is far from over, I am pleased the Court granted preliminary relief against the President’s unacceptable and unauthorized executive overreach,” he said. 

But New York University law professor Bethany Davis Noll said she believes that the administration will still be able to put out its forthcoming social cost value because she said the judge can’t rule on something that doesn’t exist yet. 

In the meantime, she argued that agencies are largely left to their own devices to estimate climate costs. 

“We have case law that for sure says, when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, we know that there’s an impact and we know the estimate isn’t zero. We know you can’t just not estimate it,” said Davis Noll, who is the executive director of the law school’s State Energy & Environmental Impact Center. 

And, she said, she believes there’s a good chance that the ruling will be reversed on appeal. 

Updated at 5:51 p.m.

Tags climate damages Deregulation

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