Court ruling positions Biden to bolster clean-air regulations

Appeals panel sets aside revisions of Obama-era power-plant rules by the outgoing Trump administration
Credit: (AP Photo/Branden Camp, File)
A coal-fired power plant.

In a rebuke to the administration of President Donald Trump on its last full day, a federal appeals court has struck down its replacement for Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

The action, in a 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, leaves President-elect Joe Biden with the opportunity to enact perhaps an even stronger version of what had been viewed by many as one of the top achievements of the Obama administration’s effort to fight climate change.

The incoming administration has repeatedly signaled that addressing climate change will be a major priority. This ruling gives Biden the ability to aggressively move forward on reducing a significant source of carbon pollution sooner than later, according to environmental advocates.

“It’s fitting that, on the Trump administration’s last day in office, the D.C. Circuit forcefully struck down the signature item of its environmental agenda, which has brought enormous harm to the health of the American people, to the environment, and to the competitiveness of our economy,’’ said Richard Revesz, director of the Institute of Public Integrity at NYU School of Law.

The timing of the ruling essentially affords the outgoing administration little opportunity to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which initially blocked the Obama plan from being implemented in 2016. That rule would have sharply curbed greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, particularly coal-fired units. When the Trump administration unveiled a new regulation that limited states’ efforts to curb such pollution, 23 states — including New Jersey, and various environmental groups — sued.

‘Fundamental misconstruction’

In its decision, the federal appeals court said the Trump rule “hinged on a fundamental misconstruction’’ of the federal Clean Air Act and remanded the issue back to the Environmental Protection Agency. The ruling clears the way for the agency to mandate emission reductions from the power sector.

“Now the hard work begins to put in place a permanent, legally sound rule that will reduce carbon pollution from power plants as the broader economy continues to transition to clean energy generation,’’ said Jessica Bell, deputy director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center.

That sector has undergone fundamental structural changes since the Obama rule was first adopted. Cheap natural gas has become the primary source for generating electricity, replacing coal-fired plants, which could not compete in the marketplace. Also, many renewable energy sources, particularly wind power, have gained a bigger share of the market.

But the Supreme Court has also changed since then, becoming more conservative now than when it first blocked the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan four years ago — perhaps setting up one of the first challenges to shifts in the nation’s energy policies that could be put in place by the Biden administration.

In New Jersey, the last two major coal plants have been retired by PSEG Power. The company also is trying to sell off its remaining fleet of fossil-fuel plants as the state aims to transition to 100% clean energy by 2050.

“This is a big win,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, which joined in litigation opposing the rule. “This is critical because it will allow incoming President Biden to move forward with a stronger rule.’’