What does Supreme Court’s EPA ruling mean for climate emissions and clean energy?

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in West Virginia v. EPA that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to enforce measures that reduce carbon emissions from coal power plants, as outlined in the agency’s existing, but never implemented Clean Power Plan. Instead, according to the June 30 ruling, that authority rests with the U.S. Congress.

Bill Ritter, Jr.
Bill Ritter, former CO governor and director of the Center for the New Energy Economy

Bill Ritter was the 41st governor of Colorado and now serves as director of the Center for the New Energy Economy, an organization based at Colorado State University that facilitates dialogue between energy policy leaders and experts in the clean energy transition.

A CSU alumnus, lawyer and Democratic politician, Ritter offered some insight into what the ruling will – and won’t – do, and what it might mean for U.S. climate policy and for Colorado.

The June 30 Supreme Court ruling that limits the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions, including from coal-fired power plants, had been expected over the last several months. What was your reaction to the ruling?

At first blush, the media reported that the ruling in West Virginia v. EPA restricted entirely the EPA’S ability to enforce regulations that are intended to limit or reduce greenhouse gases. While it is true that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Obama Clean Power Plan rule, the Court did not say that the EPA cannot regulate greenhouse gases without further congressional approval. The Court did say that the EPA went too far in the Clean Power Plan because it proscribed for the power sector exactly how it would reduce its emissions. The Court called the shift from coal to natural gas, renewables, and other forms of cleaner or clean energy a “generational” shift. So, the Supreme Court was saying primarily that the EPA did not have authority from the Clean Air Act to say specifically what technologies must be deployed to reduce greenhouse gases. The Court instead said that this is a “major question” that Congress must answer, not the EPA.

The Center for the New Energy Economy at CSU, which I direct, has done extensive work on the Clean Power Plan. For my team and me there was great fear that the ruling was going to restrict the EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gases more broadly. Thankfully, it did not.

What is an example of a direct impact this ruling will have on people’s lives, either in Colorado or elsewhere?

The Clean Power Plan’s final draft was published in 2015. In February 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the Enforcement of the Plan, basically putting the plan on the shelf until lower courts could rule on the plan’s legality. The Trump administration came to power in January 2017 and withdrew the Clean Power Plan all together. Despite circumstances that seem to favor coal, the market for coal-fired generation has taken a dramatic downturn. It is likely that the U.S. will get beyond the emissions reductions contemplated by the Clean Power Plan, because of market forces, and because the power sector believes it must play a role in emissions reduction with or without Congressional action. The direct impact to average citizens will be minimal if the Supreme Court does nothing further to erode the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

What does the ruling mean for Colorado?

The Clean Power Plan only concerned the power (electricity) sector. Colorado is way ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to reducing emissions from the power sector. While the Clean Power Plan would have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 50% by 2032, the largest power providers in Colorado have set goals to reduce emissions by 80-85% by 2030. It renders the impact of the Clean Power Plan moot in Colorado (and many other states as well.)

What work are the Center for the New Energy Economy and others continuing to do to guide the national conversation around the transition to clean energy?

The Center for the New Energy Economy has several projects aimed at assisting policy makers and other stakeholders transition to cleaner forms of energy, transportation, and buildings.

We host a Clean Energy Legislators Academy for state legislators from across the country. We also host an Energy Transition Academy for coal-dependent communities, as they see the transition out of coal impact their counties’ and towns’ revenue, and just as dramatically, impact their workforce.

We have several projects where we work with governors, legislators, utilities and other stakeholders to specifically address how their state or region can tackle its greenhouse gases through clean energy policy.