In order to get to the answer, we need to dive into a bit of recent history. Back under President Barack Obama, the EPA proposed a change to emissions regulation presented as the Clean Power Plan. This plan would have required electric plants cut their emissions to at least 30% below the 2005 levels by 2030. Although the use of updated technology would have helped these plants to reduce the emissions given off by burning coal, it was unlikely to be enough to reach these levels. As a result, the proposal effectively required plants to shift to renewable energy sources like wind or solar.
But was this approach legal? Could the EPA push electric plants to change the sources used to produce energy?
The Obama EPA argued it could, that this push was consistent with the Clean Air Act. But President Donald Trump’s administration repealed this plan and replaced with the Clean Power Plan in 2018. Those in favor of the Clean Power Plan viewed this plan as more industry friendly.
President Trump’s plan was ultimately dismissed by a federal appeals court — which leaves us in a bit of an odd spot as neither plan is currently in place.
This has led a group to come together and ask the Supreme Court for guidance. But how do you ask the Supreme Court for guidance when there are not regulations in place to challenge? They claim that the legal questions doctrine allows the Supreme Court to step in to keep federal agencies in their lane. They argue that the EPA can regulate emissions, but that it is going out of its lane if it attempts to tell the electricity industry how to get electricity.
What does the electricity industry want out of this case?
Interestingly, a number of large utility companies are siding with the EPA. As discussed in a recent article in Nature, the reason for this likely includes the fact that utility companies can get out of lawsuits that are based on climate change by pointing to EPA regulations. According to this argument, if the emissions are federally regulated the utility company cannot be held liable for climate change-induced issues potentially saving them from litigating millions in civil lawsuits.
What does this mean for electric plants in Texas?
We will know more as the case, West Virginia v. EPA, unfolds. Due to the fact that President Trump was able to replace three justices leading to a more conservative court, it is likely the court will either limit or remove the EPA’s authority to regulate power-plant emissions in this manner.