Clean power delay stokes worries about Paris treaty

Michael Biesecker
Associated Press

Washington – — The Obama administration asserted Wednesday that a Supreme Court order delaying enforcement of its new clean-power rules will ultimately have little impact on meeting the nation’s obligations under the recent Paris climate agreement.

But environmentalists and academic experts are more nervous.

They are concerned that any significant pause in implementing mandated reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants will imperil the credibility of the Unites States to lead on climate change, while increasing worries both at home and abroad that the whole international agreement might unravel if a Republican wins the White House in November.

Nearly 200 countries agreed in December to cut or limit heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the first global treaty to try to limit the worst predicted impacts of climate change. The goal is to limit warming to no more than an additional 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Each nation set its own goals under the treaty, and President Barack Obama committed the United States to make a 26 to 28 percent cut in U.S. emissions by 2030.

The Clean Power Plan is seen as essential to meeting that goal, requiring a one-third reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants over the next 15 years. Even before the Environmental Protection Agency released the plan last year, a long list of mostly Republican states that are economically dependent on coal mining and oil production announced they would sue.

Though the case is still pending before an appeals court in Washington, a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court issued a surprising order on Tuesday barring any enforcement of the plan until the legal challenge is resolved. Whichever side loses at the appeals level is almost certain to petition for review by the high court, almost certainly freezing any significant action on the plan’s goals until after Obama’s term expires in January 2017.

Even if the justices ultimately uphold the Clean Power Plan, GOP leaders in Congress have vowed to wipe the rules away if a Republican wins November’s presidential election. That raises the specter that the U.S., the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China, might also withdraw from the Paris treaty.

“President Obama’s credibility on the climate issue was crucial to reaching agreement at Paris,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University professor of geosciences and international affairs. “The entire edifice built at Paris could collapse, much as the Kyoto Protocol was seriously undermined by President George W. Bush’s withdrawal of the U.S. from that agreement.”

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Wednesday that leaders in the countries participating in the agreement understand that the rulemaking process in the U.S. is often complicated and litigious. But, in the end, he said this week’s setback from the Supreme Court is just a “temporary, procedural determination.”

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia, whose coal-dependent state is helping lead the lawsuit against Obama’s plan, suggested Wednesday that taking any steps to meet the required emissions reductions before the final legal decision would be a waste of time and money.

He said for him, opposition to the emissions limits has “nothing to do with climate change.” Rather, it’s about protecting coal-mining jobs already endangered by competition from plentiful stores of cheap natural gas.