President Obama pledged to wield a pen and phone during his second term rather than engage with Congress. The slew of executive orders, enforcement memorandums, regulations and “Dear Colleague” letters comprised an unprecedented assertion of executive authority. Equally unparalleled is the ease with which the Obama agenda can be dismantled. Among the first actions on President Trump’s chopping block should be the Clean Power Plan.
In 2009 Congress rejected a cap-and-trade scheme to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency then devised a nearly identical scheme to mandate shifting electricity generation from disfavored facilities, like those powered by coal, to those the EPA prefers, like natural gas and renewables. No statute authorized the EPA to seize regulatory control of the nation’s energy sector. The agency instead discovered, in an all-but-forgotten 1970s-era provision of the Clean Air Act, that it had that power all along.
To support its preferred policy, the agency was compelled to “interpret” the statute in a way that contradicts what it acknowledges is the “literal” reading of the text and clashes with decades of its own regulations. It also nullifies language blocking regulation for power plants because they are already regulated under an alternative program. By mangling the Clean Air Act to intrude on areas it was never meant to, the regulation violates the constitutional bar on commandeering the states to carry out federal policy.
These defects are why the Supreme Court put the EPA’s plan on hold while an appeals court in Washington, D.C., considers challenges brought by the energy industry and 27 states. These legal challenges now appear to have been overtaken by events. President Trump can immediately issue an executive order to adopt a new energy policy that respects the states’ role in regulating energy markets and that prioritizes making electricity affordable and reliable. Such an order should direct the EPA to cease all efforts to enforce and implement the Clean Power Plan. The agency would then extend all of the regulation’s deadlines, enter an administrative stay and commence regulatory proceedings to rescind the previous order.
That would leave the D.C. appeals court—which some supporters of the plan are still counting on for a Hail Mary save—or the Supreme Court with little choice but to send the legal challenges back to the agency. While the Clean Power Plan could technically linger in the Code of Federal Regulations for a year or so, it would have no legal force.
When an agency changes course, it must provide a reasoned explanation to address factual findings supporting its prior policy. In certain instances that requirement may impose a real burden. For example, a rule rescinding the EPA’s “Endangerment Finding” regarding the effects of greenhouse gases would have to address the evidence underlying it. A failure to provide a satisfactory explanation of a change in policy may render a rule “arbitrary and capricious” and vulnerable to legal challenge.
Environmentalist groups have already vowed to bring suit to defend the Clean Power Plan, but a challenge would be toothless. The aggressive legal positions underlying the Obama administration’s most controversial rules—including the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States rule, and the FCC’s Open Internet order—will make it easier to rescind them. That’s because rejecting the assertion of legal authority underlying such a rule is enough to justify a policy change. If the agency’s view is that it simply lacks the power to carry out a rule, then it follows that the rule must be withdrawn.
Even if a court were to find that the EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act underlying the plan is permissible, that would still not compel the Trump EPA to accept that interpretation as the only permissible one. And even if a court were to rule—erroneously, in our view—that the Clean Power Plan does not violate the Constitution’s vertical separation of powers, that would still not absolve the executive branch of the responsibility to consider that constitutional issue for itself and then act accordingly.
President Obama may soon come to understand that the presidential pen and phone is a double-edged sword.
Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman, who practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington, D.C., represent the state of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality in their challenge to the Clean Power Plan.