June 19, 2019, is a day of infamy for advocates of the costly and complex federal regulations to address climate change issued by Obama era regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”). On that day, the Trump EPA announced that it was replacing Obama’s Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule (“ACER”).
The contrast between the two rules could not be starker. Obama’s Clean Power Plan used the federal rule-making process to set strict emission standards on America’s power and manufacturing industries, imposed rigid state plan requirements that mandated the reduction of the use of certain forms of energy, e.g., coal, and subsidized other forms of energy like wind and solar. The Clean Power Plan empowered EPA to restructure all of American life from the types of energy used, to the products that could be manufactured, to the location of industry.
The legality of Obama’s Clean Power Plan was challenged in court by 28 states and hundreds of U.S. businesses. The U.S. Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the law, and it never went into effect.
When the Trump administration took office one of its first deregulatory efforts was to initiate a rule change to replace the Clean Power Plan. Under the new rule, legally effective around July 18, 2019, the energy industry would still be required to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by thirty-five percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The International Energy Agency however, believes a 74% reduction is needed to address the impacts of climate change.
ACER moreover, eliminates the mandates on states to meet federal emission targets. States are now free to determine how energy efficiency can be improved. Finally, ACER is an armistice between the federal government and the coal industry. Effectively, President Obama’s war on coal is over.
While the environmental community is likely to aggressively challenge the new rule in court for not doing enough to address climate change, that challenge will raise a far more significant issue concerning the rule of law in this country. Specifically, the Obama administration viewed the Clean Air Act as a broad grant of authority that allowed it to regulate the economy in ways never envisioned by Congress.
The Trump administration viewed the Obama Clean Power Plan as more than regulatory overreach, and it viewed it as an illegal power grab to shut down economic growth in the name of environmentalism. What is striking in this conflict between two administrations, is that the same law, the Clean Air Act, without any changes by Congress, was thought by the Obama administration, to be a massive source of executive power, while, a few months later, the Trump administration viewed it as an excessive use of executive power that placed illegal restrictions on the entire economy.
In a similar conflict concerning the application of the Clean Water Act, the Obama administration viewed the law as authorizing power to regulate almost all waters in the United States, no matter how small, including water in ditches. Again, the Trump administration viewed the same law as only regulating water bodies that had an impact on interstate commerce. Again, two diametrically opposed positions taken as the law of the nation within a short period and without any congressional action.
This dramatic conflict over the power of the Executive to change the scope, meaning and intent of a law passed by Congress, in a short time, raises a fundamental question about executive power and the meaning of the rule of law. While the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act are high profile environmental regulations, similar regulatory U-turns regularly occur many times, in many areas of law, when new administrations take office.
This conflict over the scope of executive power to regulate (or what legislative powers can Congress delegate) must be resolved to avoid this nation becoming a banana republic. In the likely event the environmental community challenges the Affordable Clean Energy Rule; the U.S. Supreme Court will have the opportunity to provide guidance on the extent of legislative power (discretion) Congress can delegate to federal agencies. The court had the opportunity this term in Gundy v. U.S. to clarify this issue, but it left in place the eighty-five-year-old principle that as long as Congress can point to an “intelligible standard” in its delegation of power to agencies, the agencies have the discretion to legislate. Unfortunately, the term “intelligible standard” is just as vague as the congressional statutes being relied upon by the agency to issue regulations.
In the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration expanded a complex statute that Congress intended for the regulation of the most harmful air pollutants, into a statute that regulated the most ubiquitous of air emission, carbon dioxide. This regulatory action, if upheld by the court, would allow the executive to regulate the entire economy, a power never intended by Congress. While the Trump administration is attempting to pull back the regulatory overreach, there is still a fundamental question that the court must address – how an agency determines the scope of the legislative authority delegated to it by Congress?
If this issue reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, its decision will be momentous as to how the federal government regulates climate change. But the decision will have a much greater impact on the power of the executive in using regulations to change the policy of the nation.
If the court sets clear limits on the expansion of agency power through regulation, it will limit radical policy swings, especially those occurring between administrations. Conversely, if the court ignores this issue, it is allowing policy swings between administrations that will denigrate the Article I, lawmaking power of Congress.
Follow Bill @WilliamLKovacs