President Obama’s centerpiece of his climate policy agenda, the “Clean Power Plan,” has become one of the most heavily litigated environmental regulations ever. Twenty-seven states and numerous industry groups have filed more than fifteen separate lawsuits challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s (“EPA”) statutory authority to promulgate the regulations.   Seventeen states, the District of Columbia, the cities of New York, Boulder, Chicago, Philadelphia, and South Miami, as well as Broward County, Florida and a number of public interest groups have intervened to support EPA.

The final rule[1] was published in Federal Register on October 23, 2015 titled “Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emission from New, Modified, and Reconstructed Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units”.[2] The rule sets carbon dioxide emissions performance rates for affected power plants that reflect the “best system of emission reduction” (BSER), and requires each states to develop its own plan that will achieve those rates. However, if states do not submit approvable plans, EPA will substitute its own plan. Compliance is not required until 2030, although there are interim goals that must be met at 3 interim periods.

The Environmental Protection Agency refers to this regulation package as the “Clean Power Plan” and states that it is a “commonsense approach to cut carbon pollution from power plants.”[3] And that the “Clean Power Plan for Existing Power Plants and the Carbon Pollution Standards for New Power Plants” will maintain an affordable, reliable energy system, while cutting pollution and protecting our health and environment now and for future generations.”[4] However, many dispute whether the Clean Power Plan will have such positive effects, arguing instead concerns of economic feasibility with currently available technology, conflicting provisions, assumptions about renewable energy production that does not currently exist and potential for large loss of employment. “Every company that depends on electricity will be affected by this rule. It is fair to say that every American industry will be affected by this rule.” Karen Harbert of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce stated. The Clean Power Plan poses significant challenges for coal-fired power plants in particular, and the majority of states challenging the rule are coal producing states or rely heavily on coal-fired power plants.

The State of Louisiana and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, are among the challengers to the rule. Petitioners argue that the final rule is in excess of the EPA statutory authority and otherwise is arbitrary, capricious, and abuse of discretion and not in accordance with the law. Among the primary arguments is that the rule may require states to mandate energy efficiency measures in addition to or in lieu of regulation of actual emissions limits. Other challenges include whether the rule will affect stability of the electrical grid.

The most recent notable ruling in the pending litigation is the recent Order denying the Motion for a Stay of the rule filed by several states, requesting that the Court halt the implementation of the Clean Power Plan until the pending litigation on the review of the final rule has concluded. On January 21, 2016 a three judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied the motions to stay the implementation of the rule. The ruling is a victory for the EPA, which sought to begin implementation of the federal carbon regulations while they are under review in the courts. All U.S. states will now have until September 6, 2016[5] to submit preliminary strategies on cutting carbon emissions from their electrical power systems by thirty-two percent on average below 2005 levels – essentially mandating a massive conversion from coal-fired power generation to lower emitting natural gas and renewable energy sources as well as mandating some energy efficiency measures. EPA has published for comment, model state plans to assist the states, as well as versions of a proposed federal plan that will be implemented if states do not submit approvable measures.

The three judge panel that recently denied the request for a stay of the final rule includes the honorable Sri Srinivasan, Judith Roberts, and Karen Henderson, appointed by Presidents Obama, Clinton and Bush, respectively. The panel further ordered expedited review of the case, setting the matter for oral argument on June 2, 2016 at 9:30a.m. June 3, 2016 has also been reserved by the Court should oral arguments extend into the next day. The deadline for briefing is April 15, 2016 for initial briefs and final briefs to be filed by April 22, 2016.

Due to the complexity of the cases and the hundreds of parties involved, attorneys participating in the litigation do not expect a ruling on the merits until late 2016 or even 2017. Regardless of when the D.C. Circuit rules, observers widely expect that the case eventually will reach the Supreme Court. The high court may not rule until 2018. This is also complicated by the upcoming presidential election. Should a Republican take the White House, the new administration may direct the EPA to rescind the Clean Power Plan.

[1] 40 CFR Parts 60, 70, 71 and 98.

[2] Federal Register at 80 Fed. Reg. 64,510 (October 23, 2015).