Obama’s Clean Air Plan Calls The GOP’s Bluff On Federalism

A federal plan with state autonomy that will reduce greenhouse gases without too much pain as a step to combat climate change? Thanks, Obama.

on August 04, 2015 at 4:30 PM

Clean Power StuffOn it’s face, the Clean Power Plan which President Obama unveiled on Monday is the most Republican sounding climate change plan imaginable. At least to the extent that you can imagine Republicans caring about climate change. Under Obama’s plan, the big bad national government will set standards for each state to cut its greenhouse gas emissions from its power plants by 2030. These targets are so attainable that critics on the left claim the plan is not big enough. Then, the federal government gets out of the way and lets each state figure out how to meet the regulations. Some states will focus on efficiency, others will focus on renewables, hell, some states will just shut down obsolete or non-essential power plants and keep right on rolling-coal to the rest of the country. Whatever works! It’s called “federalism.” The central government sets the priority, but each state is its own laboratory allowed to figure out what works best for them. Republicans should love this plan.

Of course, they don’t. This is Obama we’re talking about. His signature piece of legislation — the Affordable Care Act — is also a Republican plan that focuses on state-based health care exchanges, and Republicans act like the thing was written by Lenin and the Politburo.

Like Obamacare, if the Clean Power Plan is vulnerable to legal challenges, it is vulnerable because the administration is going out of its way to allow the states the freedom to find their own ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA is promulgating this rule under §111(d) of the Clean Air Act. It’s a section that is rarely used. The EPA clearly has the authority to regulate emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act, but critics argue that the EPA does not have the authority to regulate emissions from states under that same Act. I can argue that the EPA is regulating the power plants in the states, but I’m not one of the nine judges who will probably ultimately decide this issue.

Furthermore, a big part of the plan involves states using renewable energy to meet the emissions targets. But you can interpret the Clean Air Act to give the EPA only authority to regulate things that power plants are currently doing, not new things that power plants should do. So you can tell a coal plant to cut its emissions, but you can’t tell a coal plant to build a windmill. I don’t think that’s what the EPA is doing here. Instead the states could build some windmills to avoid having to increase efficiency at the coal plant. But again, I’m not a judge.

And, of course, we’re stuck with interpreting the EPA’s authority under old laws because there’s no chance Obama could get a “climate change law” passed under this Congress. Later, when a Republican president uses rhetoric buried in some food stamp regulation to give him the authority to feed Soylent Green to poor people, we will remember these times.

That said, we might not have an Obamacare level fight over the Clean Power Plan because it might just be so easy for states to reach the targets that it’s not worth fighting over. From Vox:

Some opponents of the Clean Power Plan are warning that states will struggle to meet the EPA’s targets; that utilities will have to close too many coal plants, threatening grid reliability; and that electric bills will soar. Any rule this complex will inevitably have problems, but it’s worth taking doomsday claims with a generous helping of salt. The EPA has been regulating the power sector for a long time, and industry claims of disaster rarely pan out. What’s more, many states — like Kentucky — were already planning to shutter some of their coal plants anyway, in response to low natural gas prices. Quite a few states will be able to meet EPA’s targets with pretty minimal effort.

A federal plan with state autonomy that will reduce greenhouse gases without too much pain as a step to combat climate change? Thanks, Obama.