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Big coal gets its day in court against the EPA

Dan Weissmann Apr 16, 2015
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Big coal gets its day in court against the EPA

Dan Weissmann Apr 16, 2015
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Coal-mining companies Peabody Energy and Murray Energy have sued to block the Environmental Protection Agency from finalizing its Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s broadest plan to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants. Today lawyers present oral arguments in the federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

In general, the law favors the EPA, according to Harvard law professor Jody Freeman, a former attorney for the Obama White House who wrote the book on climate change and U.S. law, published by the American Bar Association. 

If the court allows the case to move forward, “I would be very surprised,” she says. “Now, of course, look: Courts sometimes do unusual things.”

A decision against the EPA—  even if reversed later— would mean delay, which could be costly to President Obama, who has a tight timeline.

“He wants to get this done by the time he leaves office,” Freeman says. Otherwise, a Republican president might easily undo it in 2017.  

“So, this is for all the marbles,” Freeman says. “This is a very high-stakes case that is playing out in the courts and will keep playing out in the courts.”

The plaintiffs have trouble, win or lose. According to a new analysis from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, this will be a record year for the closing of coal-fired power plants.

“That is driven by multiple factors,” Bloomberg analyst Ethan Zindler says. “In the short-run, it’s really not being driven by the Clean Power Plan.”

There have been other regulations, plus competition from cheap natural gas, and the inefficiency of many plants, some of them 50 years old. 

One of the plaintiffs, Peabody Energy, was removed from the S&P 500 stock index in September 2014.

At a conference a few days later, the CEO of Murray Energy— the other plaintiff— talked about his industry’s “absolute destruction.” He said, “It’s not coming back.”

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