At the Trump administration’s request, a federal appellate court agreed Friday to postpone a ruling on lawsuits challenging Obama-era restrictions on carbon emissions.
The Environmental Protection Agency had asked the court to put a hold on the case shortly after President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing officials to roll back the Clean Power Plan.
While not final, the postponement is a disappointment for environmentalists who vehemently opposed the request for delay. They have urged the court to rule on the merits of the case, despite the change in administration.
The plan championed by President Barack Obama was challenged by a coalition of states and industry groups that profit or benefit from the continued burning of coal. The regulations sought to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants by about one-third by 2030, a goal in line with the United States’ commitment under the Paris climate accords.
In a second order issued Friday, the appellate court in Washington also postponed consideration of a separate case challenging an EPA rule capping greenhouse-gas emissions from new or renovated power plants.
Trump has pledged to reverse decades of decline in a U.S. coal industry under threat from sources of energy as natural gas, wind turbines and solar farms. He has also said he plans to “renegotiate” the global climate treaty signed by nearly 200 countries in 2015.
About two dozen mostly coal-friendly states and more than 100 companies sued to stop the Clean Power Plan, calling it an unconstitutional power grab. Opponents claim the plan will kill jobs, slash demand for coal and increase electricity prices.
“Today’s decision by the court is a positive step toward protecting West Virginia coal miners and those who depend upon their success,” said West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who was among those who challenged the rules. “The court recognized the landscape has changed and that a decision on the merits is not appropriate at this time.”
The late Justice Antonin Scalia was among five conservative justices on the Supreme Court who agreed to delay the plan’s implementation shortly before his sudden death in February 2016. The Supreme Court’s four liberal justices disagreed.
Ten judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit later heard arguments in the case and could have issued a ruling at any time. Friday’s order from the court asks the parties whether, after a 60-day postponement, the issue should be sent back to the EPA.
That outcome would be a huge blow to environmental groups.
“We are in a race against time to address the climate crisis,” said Vickie Patton, a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund. “Climate progress and clean energy cannot be stopped by the litigation tactics of polluters.”
Under a prior Supreme Court ruling, the EPA is required to regulate carbon emissions. But Trump’s appointees could seek to greatly dial back the level of reductions mandated under the Obama-era plan.
Jonathan Adler, a Case Western Reserve University law professor, said that the order gives the Trump administration a chance to show it is moving forward with its own regulations to replace the current plan. He noted that the appellate court is requiring the EPA to submit status reports on its progress every 30 days.
“The court doesn’t want to rule on something that doesn’t have to be ruled upon,” Adler said. “At the same time, the court doesn’t want the let the agency shirk its obligations, either.”