After Congress turned down President Obama’s request to enact a law regulating power plants’ greenhouse-gas emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency turned to the states—not with a request, but with instructions to carry out the president’s energy policy. The EPA’s “Clean Power Plan” now faces the scrutiny of the nation’s chief regulatory review court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
If the Constitution’s federalism is to endure, the Clean Power Plan must be struck down.
The Constitution establishes a federal government of limited and enumerated powers while the states retain a plenary “police power,” subject only to the specific limitations of federal law. This is what Justice Anthony Kennedy called the Constitution’s “genius”: It “split the atom of sovereignty” to ensure accountability when meeting both local and national concerns, while fostering rivalry between the two levels to curb excessive political ambition that might threaten liberty.
Only in recent decades did politicians learn how to realize their ambitions through collusion. The federal government now entices states with transfer payments to establish and administer social-welfare programs. And, in schemes that the courts describe as “cooperative federalism,” it offers states the choice to regulate their citizens according to federal dictates, as an alternative to the feds regulating directly and having states get out of the way.
Even these approaches were not enough for the Obama administration to cajole the states to carry out its energy agenda. So it resolved to obliterate one of the last vestiges of the Constitution’s vertical separation of powers: the bar on federal commandeering of the states and their officials to carry out federal policy.
The Clean Power Plan is enormously complicated, but its overall approach is straightforward. Previous emissions regulations have focused on reducing emissions from particular facilities, but this one relies on shifting electricity generation from disfavored facilities (coal-fired power plants) to those the EPA prefers (natural gas and renewables). The EPA then determined what, in its view, is the maximum amount of such shifting that each of the nation’s regional electric grids could possibly accommodate and calculated the emissions reductions.
Parcel those figures out by state, factor in additional reductions due to estimated efficiency improvements at older plants, and the result is state-specific reduction targets. The states can elect to achieve those targets themselves—or, if they decline, the EPA will do it for them. “Textbook cooperative federalism,” says the EPA.
Not quite. Whether or not the states choose to implement the plan directly, it leaves them no choice but to carry out the EPA’s federal climate policy. That’s because the EPA can destroy but not create. It can regulate emissions of existing facilities, but it lacks the legal authority to facilitate the construction and integration of new power sources, which is ultimately the only way to achieve the plan’s aggressive targets.
That duty falls to the states, which the plan depends upon to carry out what the EPA calls their “responsibility to maintain a reliable electric system.” Doing nothing, as in the cooperative federalism scenario, is not an option. CONTINUE AT SITE