WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected the Trump administration’s plan to ease restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, paving the way for President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to impose new and stricter restrictions on power plants.
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals described the Trump administration’s “Affordable Clean Energy” rule as a “fundamental misconstruction” of the country’s environmental law, developed through a “tortured series of misinterpretations” of the law.
On the last full day of the Trump presidency, the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to weaken and undermine climate change policies effectively came to an end, limiting a string of failures in which the courts discarded deregulation after deregulation. Experts have widely dubbed the EPA’s losing streak as one of the agency’s worst legal records in modern history.
The appeals court failed to reintroduce a 2015 ordinance issued by President Barack Obama’s EPA that would have forced utility companies to move from coal to renewables to reduce emissions. But it rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to repeal this rule and replace it with a toothless one.
The judges have invalidated the Trump administration’s core argument: The only way to interpret the 1970 Clean Air Act is that the federal government has no power to set national emission limits or force states to move away from fossil fuel energy . That argument would have prevented Mr Biden or any future government from tackling climate change in power plants without an explicit new law from Congress.
The Trump administration, the judges said, “must not shirk its responsibility by envisioning new restrictions that the simple language of the statute does not clearly require.”
Molly Block, an EPA spokeswoman, said the Trump administration was disappointed with the ruling, saying it was risking “more uncertainty at a time when the nation needs regulatory stability”.
Environmental groups and legal experts saw the decision as a confirmation of the argument that the government has the authority to fight climate change.
“It’s a tremendous win,” said Jody Freeman, Harvard University professor of environmental law who served as an advisor to the Obama administration.
A key promise of the Biden campaign was to eradicate fossil fuel emissions from the energy sector by 2035. With Tuesday’s decision, the Biden administration will not have to wait for the Trump rule to settle before deciding whether or how they should be used in regulation to combat climate change, Ms. Freeman said. Instead, the Biden EPA could “go on the offensive” immediately.
“The real win here is that the Trump administration has not tied the hands of the Biden team,” Ms Freeman said. “They wanted to restrict themselves to a strict legal interpretation and make it impossible for a new administration to set ambitious standards for power plants. That was her whole strategy. And there was a spectacular defeat. “
In 2015, the Obama administration passed the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce emissions from the energy sector by 32 percent by 2030 compared to 2005. To this end, it instructed every state to develop plans to eliminate carbon emissions from power plants by phasing out coal and increasing the production of renewable energy.
The measure never came into force. The Supreme Court said in 2016 that states will not have to comply until a spate of lawsuits from conservative states and the coal miners have been resolved. Shortly after the election of President Trump, his EPA repealed the Clean Power Plan.
Andrew Wheeler, the outgoing EPA administrator and former coal lobbyist, replaced the plan with the weaker affordable clean energy rule, which only allowed the law to set emission-reduction guidelines in individual power plants, such as increasing efficiency or upgrading boilers that did not threaten the entire energy sector, such as B. Coal.
Alex Flint, executive director of the Alliance for Market Solutions, a conservative group campaigning for a carbon tax, said the ruling had “messed up” owners of power plants, steel mills, cement kilns and other polluting industries.
“An administration pushes rules in one direction and the next in the other. Then a court throws out the rules. It is impossible to make efficient decisions over the long term, ”he said.
He called on Congress to set a price for emissions “so that polluters can decide whether to continue and pay the cost of doing it or to change their operations.”
Ms. Freeman said the administration could attempt a few last minute filings over the next 24 hours but saw their chances of success as very slim.
Whether Mr. Biden will try again to apply the regulation to curb power plant emissions is still being discussed. Tuesday’s decision, legal experts said, didn’t give him approval, but it gave him the leeway to try. Any new effort would certainly be challenged by Conservatives and would most likely have an uncertain future before the Supreme Court.
A spokesman for the Biden transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.