Politics & Policy

Goodbye, Clean Power Plan

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt at CPAC 2017 (Gage Skidmore)

There were three good reasons to abandon the Clean Power Plan, and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt cited two of them in his decision, announced Monday, to rescind the cumbrous carbon dioxide rule.

The first argument against the Clean Power Plan is cronyism. The Clean Power Plan was designed to disadvantage certain industries, namely coal producers and other fossil-fuel concerns, in the interest of certain other politically favored industries, namely alternative- and renewable-energy companies. The combination of severe limitations on carbon dioxide emissions and incentives for adopting alternative-energy schemes was intended to achieve exactly what Barack Obama had previously promised to do: ruin the coal industry. Pruitt argues correctly that EPA regulations should not be used to pick winners and losers in the marketplace, that the agency should instead pursue substantive environmental goals without respect to particular marketplace outcomes. The goal of CPP wasn’t clean air — it was dead coal companies.

The second argument Pruitt made is that CPP exceeds the EPA’s statutory authority under the Clean Air Act. It does, the sages at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia notwithstanding. Even if we were to accept the Supreme Court’s view in Massachusetts vs. EPA that carbon dioxide falls within the Clean Air Act’s definition of “pollution” — we don’t — the regulation of pollution is a very different enterprise from joining a global climate-change crusade, the codification of which was attempted through two international agreements — the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris climate treaty — that the United States has rejected. The EPA’s jurisdiction is national, and it is not empowered to conduct what amounts to foreign policy. Nor is the EPA empowered to conduct industrial policy, which is what CPP amounted to, with its attempted reorganization of the American energy sector along ideological lines.

Which brings us to the third reason to repeal CPP, arguably the most significant one: The American people, through their elected representatives, have had many opportunities to limit carbon dioxide emissions in the hopes of mitigating climate change. Congress has considered the question and declined to do so. The duty of the EPA is to see to the enforcement of the law as enacted by the people’s representatives, not to frustrate their intent. If we are as a nation to join the worldwide climate-change campaign, then we need to spell out in terms of great specificity what our goals are, what it is we intend to do to achieve them, and what price we are willing to pay in pursuit of those goals. That means a debate in Congress and a vote. It means an act of Congress, and the Clean Air Act is not it. If we are to pursue a national climate-change program, then we require a legislative instrument fitted to the task. That this is not currently high on Congress’s agenda is a reflection of the fact that — how did President Obama put it? — elections have consequences.

Scott Pruitt is performing a necessary (and sure to be mostly thankless) task in trying to drag the EPA back into the bounds established for it by law. The Clean Power Plan was a bad piece of policy, one intended to wreck a disfavored industry, and it was beyond the EPA’s statutory remit. If the Democrats want a far-ranging and disruptive new global-warming law, then let them campaign on that and try winning a few legislative elections. In the meantime, Pruitt has done the right thing by keeping the EPA working with the law we’ve got rather than the one some environmentalists wish we had.


    The Great Regulatory Rollback

    How Junk Science is Poisoning the EPA

    The Scott Pruitt Non-Scandal

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