The Strength of the Clean Air Act: Why Obama’s Climate Policies Will Endure

By Claire Langley
Climate & Energy

In June 2013, President Obama unveiled a key component of his second-term domestic agenda: the Climate Action Plan, a wide-ranging interagency strategy to ratchet down U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The Climate Action Plan marshals the President’s executive authority under federal law and features a suite of regulations, programs and measures—some already implemented and others proposed—across different sectors of the U.S. economy. The Plan articulates a goal of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and a 26-28 percent reduction by 2025.

The single most important driver behind the President’s Climate Action Plan is the federal Clean Air Act, which for over four decades has served as the nation’s primary law for curbing air pollution. In the last five years the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun using this statute as a tool for combatting greenhouse gas pollution, consistent with the Supreme Court’s 2007 holding in Massachusetts v. EPA authorizing the agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act to the extent those pollutants contribute to climate change and endanger public health and welfare.

The Clean Power Plan, under the Clean Air Act, is the Obama administration’s most far-reaching tool to regulate U.S. CO2 emissions, targeting existing fossil fuel power plants across the country. The Clean Power Plan would be the first-ever nationwide set of limitations on CO2, estimated to achieve nearly a 30 percent reduction in emissions from the electricity sector by 2030. The rule will be finalized in the coming months.

The plan is novel in the way it regulates emissions from the electricity sector rather than through individual power plants, and in the flexibility it allows by providing states the opportunity to tailor their approach to local circumstances. These policy innovations are politically and legally significant. On the one hand they help reduce compliance costs and help create local buy-in, while on the other hand they create a greater risk of legal challenges.

The current Republican-controlled Congress has launched a frontal assault on EPA’s efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and the President’s climate agenda in advance of the 2016 elections despite the increasing urgency of climate change, with their efforts aimed squarely at the Clean Power Plan.

This brief provides a balanced assessment of the risks and challenges facing the Obama administration as it seeks to mitigate climate change using the Clean Air Act. It outlines the Clean Air Act and its applications for regulating domestic greenhouse gas emissions, summarizes the likely challenges the administration will face in the coming years, and provides political analysis on the extent to which the United States will sustain its recent climate progress after the election of a new President and Congress in late 2016.

This brief finds that in the medium term, it is highly likely the EPA will be regulating emissions from power plants. This optimism stems from the fact that many states have already indicated they will move forward with implementation plans, the U.S. government has a legal obligation to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and those regulations must be based on science – further solidifying the evidence-base for such legislation. Implementation of the Clean Power Plan will be far along by the time the next president enters office, making repeal difficult. For these reasons and more, there is every reason to be hopeful that Obama-era climate policies will have a lasting effect on U.S. emissions.

U.S. Climate Action Under the Clean Air Act
July 2015
This brief by Climate Advisers and Sierra Club provides a balanced assessment of the risks and challenges facing the Obama administration as it seeks to mitigate climate change using the Clean Air Act. It outlines the CAA and its applications for regulating domestic greenhouse gas emissions, summarizes the likely challenges the administration will face in the coming years, and provides political analysis on the extent to which the United States will sustain its recent climate progress after the election of a new President and Congress in late 2016.

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On July 9, 2015

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