After two big triumphs for Obama, the Supreme Court declines to give him a trifecta on climate change

The third target.
The third target.
Image: AP/Jim Cole
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The US Supreme Court today backed away from delivering president Barack Obama another big triumph, ruling against one of his primary tools to combat climate change.

The court ruled against the White House effort to significantly scale back emissions from coal-burning power plants, and thereby combat climate change. The case was brought by the coal industry against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates emissions from power plants.

Last week, the nation’s highest court delivered Obama two legacy-building victories, validating same-sex marriage and his signature health care law. A victory in the EPA case would have been a trifecta. But analysts say that the court ruling on emissions comes so late that it may be in effect be moot.

The EPA case was decided in large part on a narrow technicality: the timing of when regulators must weigh the cost of new rules. Industry players argued that the EPA should not have created regulations before contemplating the cost to utilities and others affected parties. The EPA agreed that costs are a major factor to be considered, but only when regulations are actually being applied.

Today’s ruling was that the EPA rule should not have been issued before taking cost into account.

Notwithstanding the decision, the administration seems likely to win the larger war to control emissions. Many of the nation’s most-polluting coal-fired plants are either already shuttered, or have installed scrubbers; as few as 22 plants across the nation were to be saved by a ruling favoring the industry today, according to an analysis by SNL Financial. That is a mere 0.9% of US power capacity, SNL says.

The coal industry has established a second front in its challenge to the EPA—an attempt to overturn a rule regulating carbon emissions—but analysts say its arguments contradict those it used to win today’s case.

The decision came as Obama makes an aggressive push to bypass Congress, which is dominated by Republicans, many of whom say they do not believe in climate change in the first place. The fossil fuel industry has broadly sought to roll back aggressive new EPA rules, but federal courts have by and large backed the White House in its assertion of a right to use the 1970 Clean Air Act to regulate carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions.