With President Trump poised to issue an executive order aimed at undoing a key pillar of the Obama administration’s climate-change agenda, environmental activist groups have joined forces for what they say will be a tooth-and-nail legal battle that could drag on for years.
Mr. Trump this week is expected to take action to roll back the Clean Power Plan, a set of EPA regulations that for the first time placed limits on carbon emissions from existing power plants. The proposal, which was stayed by the Supreme Court last year and remains tied up in the federal judiciary, is explicitly designed to reduce the use of coal in power generation, and is a key piece of a larger effort to address climate change.
Mr. Trump and his EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, have vowed to scrap the plan, but environmentalists say such a move will not be as easy at the White House believes.
“We will make them face the music at every step of this process and in court at the end of the process,” said David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The NRDC joined the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and other powerful green groups on a conference call Tuesday morning to brief reporters on their legal strategy to push back against the administration’s pending moves. Much like Mr. Trump’s executive action last week to scale back EPA’s authority over waterways across the country, any move on the Clean Power Plan cannot, as a basic legal matter, undo the regulations overnight.
“The Trump administration cannot simply jettison these carefully crafted, reasonable standards,” said Joanne Spalding, chief climate counsel at the Sierra Club.
Indeed, the Supreme Court a decade ago found that the EPA does have the legal authority and duty to address greenhouse-gas pollution under the decades-old Clean Air Act. As a result, the EPA in 2009 issued a so-called “endangerment finding” that identified carbon emissions and other pollutants as direct threats to public health, and therefore must be addressed under the Clean Air Act.
Undoing that complex framework, critics say, will be next to impossible.
Federal law also calls on the EPA to undergo a lengthy process — including draft proposals, public comment periods, consultation with stakeholders, cost-and-benefit analyses, and other steps — for such large-scale regulations. Put simply, it likely would take at least 12 months to formally unwind the Clean Power Plan.
Even then, environmental groups argue that the courts are likely to require the EPA to replace the Clean Power Plan with another proposal that addresses carbon pollution
Specialists say the White House’s effort will be a lengthy one, even without the wave of legal action that’s on the horizon.
“Altering a final rule, like the Clean Power Plan, isn’t as simple as the stroke of a pen. It will likely require the EPA to undertake a new rulemaking process including public notice and comment that could last a few years,” said Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.