by Patrick Parenteau, professor of law, Vermont Law School
In a move that stunned even the most seasoned court watchers, the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court has blocked the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. The unsigned order, without any explanation, puts a hold on the rule pending the outcome of proceedings currently underway in the D.C. Circuit, which had earlier denied a stay. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor voted against the stay.
This action is unprecedented in a number of ways. The majority made none of the findings typically required to obtain a stay. There is no analysis of the merits of any of petitioners’ claims. There is no showing that the rule threatens any immediate harm to petitioners, especially given the long lead times EPA has built into the process. There is no showing that the balance of hardships tips decidedly in favor of the petitioners, especially given the fact that most states are well into the process of developing implementation plans and those that do not want to submit a plan don’t have to. There is no showing that the stay is in the public interest, especially given the warnings from the scientific community that time is fast running out to avoid catastrophic consequences of climate disruption. Never before has the Court interjected itself in a case with such high stakes that hasn’t even been fully briefed and argued before the lower court.
Some have speculated that the majority may be reacting to what happened last term in Michigan v. EPA (the mercury rule case). By the time the case got to the Court, over two years had passed and 80 percent of the industry had already complied with it. Thus, when the Court found a flaw in EPA’s cost analysis, it was faced with a fait accompli which no doubt irked the conservatives. But it would be a sad comment on the Court’s integrity if the decision to issue a stay was motivated by pique or distrust of the agency.