Clean Power Plan a Major Step Toward Lower Carbon Future

Industrial landscape with different energy resources. Sustainable development. (iStock Photo)
Industrial landscape with different energy resources. Sustainable development. (iStock Photo)
An industrial landscape with a range of different energy sources. (iStock image)
An industrial landscape with a range of different energy sources. (iStock image)

On Monday, President Barack Obama announced the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Power Plan, an ambitious set of regulations designed to cut the United States’ carbon emissions while encouraging energy from renewable sources. UConn Today asked UConn Law professor Joseph MacDougald, the Strasser Fellow in Environmental Law and executive director of the Center for Energy & Environmental Law, to discuss the new plan.

Is the Clean Power Plan a big deal?

The Clean Power Plan is a huge deal! Carbon emissions and climate change are the most serious energy and environmental challenges of our age and this is the first aggressive, national policy that actually reduces greenhouse gas emissions from large power plants, the largest emitters of carbon dioxide. If followed, by 2030 the plan will reduce our emissions from these sources to two-thirds of the 2005 levels.

So, what is the Clean Power Plan?

The Clean Power Plan is a regulation, made by the Environmental Protection Agency, to set state-by-state standards for carbon emissions from existing power plants, ultimately reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as soot and other pollutants. While the final regulation runs 1,560 pages, in the big picture, it’s pretty simple. The plan uses an existing part of the Clean Air Act to set a state’s general emissions targets, yet the states themselves create the plans to reach that target. This type of approach is used throughout the environmental laws and is called cooperative federalism.

How will the states make their plans?

The EPA’s announcement also includes guidelines to help each state craft their implementation plan. Aside from reductions, these guidelines also encourage increasing efficiency and expanding renewable power sources, like solar and wind. This flexible approach is important because each state has a different power mix and will need different solutions.

Why is this happening now?

There are several possible reasons. One unsurprising answer from a law professor is “the law.” In 2007, the Supreme Court held in Massachusetts v. EPA that carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, could be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Like knocking down the first domino in a long line, that ruling created the authority for the EPA to act; that authority triggered the EPA regulatory development process; and that process finally led to the Clean Power Plan. Another answer is presidential priority. President Obama has been giving a series of speeches highlighting his belief that climate policy needs immediate action, stating on Monday that we are the first generation to experience the effects of climate change and the last to be able to do something about it. A third reason is international. This fall, the United Nations will convene a major climate conference in Paris. These conferences are the venue for international climate agreements. It’s reasonable to suspect that federal officials believe this new regulation will give the United States leverage in negotiating with other countries.

Do you anticipate legal challenges?

Absolutely! Several states and coal companies already tried to sue the EPA over this very plan when it was announced just as a draft. Since a court generally won’t rule on draft proposals, only final agency decisions, the suit was dismissed. That all changes with the final rule announcement, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that a new lawsuit has already been filed.

Would you expect the Supreme Court to rule on the plan?

It’s too early to tell. The Supreme Court, unlike a regular trial court, does not hear every case it receives. It tends to hear those cases where other courts reach different conclusions in similar cases or where cases present important legal or national issues. However, the court has been active in hearing cases challenging EPA’s emissions rules, including two recent cases where the court struck down or limited EPA’s emissions programs in other areas. Given the court’s interest, I wouldn’t be surprised to find the plan in front of the court someday, depending on how any lower rulings develop.

What does this all mean for Connecticut?

All states will be affected, but since Connecticut receives almost half its electricity from nuclear power, which does not generate carbon dioxide, and since we are already part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multi-state partnership that has capped our carbon growth, Connecticut is probably better prepared than most states for this new plan.