Nation burns while justices fiddle on climate change

Rail cars are filled with coal at a mine north of Douglas, Wyo. The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday delayed new regulations to curb emissions from coal-fired electricity.
Rail cars are filled with coal at a mine north of Douglas, Wyo. The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday delayed new regulations to curb emissions from coal-fired electricity. The Associated Press

There is little good news in the U.S. Supreme Court’s shameful decision on Tuesday to temporarily block President Barack Obama’s plan to curb emissions from coal.

The conservative majority’s 5-4 ruling doesn’t kill the “clean power” regulations, at least not at the moment. But it isn’t a good sign: Never before has the court stayed a federal regulation even before the legal merits of the challenges against it could be determined.

The obvious message in that strikes an ominous blow to Obama’s climate agenda. It also undermines confidence in December’s landmark Paris climate agreement.

And given the unnerving pace of climate change – 2015 was the hottest year ever recorded – the decision is the judicial equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns and is beyond irresponsible.

Issued last summer by the Environmental Protection Agency over the furious opposition of the fossil fuel industry and coal states, the new regulations require states, over the next decade and a half, to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions from electrical power plants. Implementation would revolutionize the way electricity is generated in this country by forcing closure of coal-fired plants, which are major polluters, and ramping up production of cleaner solar and wind power.

Obama used the regulations to persuade nearly 200 nations in December that the U.S. was serious about addressing global warming, and that the world could and must work together.

The rules had implications in California, where they brought momentum to an ambitious move toward greater regionalization of the electric grid – a strategy that could spread transmission costs and lower energy bills for ratepayers. Gov. Jerry Brown envisions much more power being swapped among Western states, and the rules would give Wyoming and Montana an extra incentive to replace their coal-generated electrons with California’s clean energy.

But 30 states, many of them reliant on coal mining or coal-fired electrical power, have sued to stop Obama’s regulations from going forward. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit unanimously turned down their request for a stay, wisely. Then the Supreme Court’s conservative majority stepped in.

There was no excuse for the justices’ decision to halt the regulations even before the challenges to them were examined. No emergency had been created. The rules give states 15 years of lead time to comply, and some states have already begun preparing.

The legal arguments for a stay – that the rules would cause irreparable harm and that the coal states would probably prevail – are specious, unless you’re talking about harm to fossil fuel barons. If anything, the urgency is on the side of the 18 states begging the high court to let the regulations go forward due to the violent storms, rising sea levels, wildfires and other damage being wrought by climate change.

The ruling signals that the court’s majority, including Justice Anthony Kennedy, who should know better, could overturn the regulation. That would be terrible news at every level.

But even if clean power survives, its implementation has been delayed into the next administration. So there’s another message: Elections matter. Perhaps now more than they ever have.