Don’t Throw Dirt on its Grave Just Yet: The Clean Power Plan

Don’t Throw Dirt on its Grave Just Yet: The Clean Power Plan

By Adam Firestone, Staff Contributor


The Trump administration has already made controversial decisions in regards to environmental policy for the United States, which leaves the state of our country’s environment hanging in the balance. With less than a month in office, President Trump has already issued executive memorandums in support of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines[1] and nominated a new head of the Environmental Protection Agency who has made controversial remarks in regards to climate change and the agency’s role in enforcement.[2] Although President Trump has yet to take official action in regards to the Clean Power Plan (CPP), he promised during his campaign to repeal the plan enacted by the Obama administration.[3]

What is the CPP and Why Does it Matter?

The CPP was enacted by the Obama Administration and it aimed to reduce the carbon emissions made from power plants in order to help curb the detrimental effects of carbon emissions on the world climate and to protect against harmful air pollution.[4] The plan rolled out by the Obama administration was projected to have clear environmental and economic impacts, including 32% reduced carbon emissions from the power sector by 2030 when compared to 2005 levels.[5] Additionally, the EPA projected that by 2030, the plan would save the United States $26-45 billion per year when taking into account climate benefits and public health improvements, including reduced asthma attacks and hospital admissions due to a decrease in pollution exposure.[6]

The Clean Power Plan aimed to set individual plans for 47 states and goals for them to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.[7] Additionally, the Clean Power Plan allowed states to personalize the carbon emission reduction by reducing output from coal plants, or even deciding to implement means like a carbon tax.[8]  The Obama administration believed this plan was just the beginning to encourage not only the United States, but the global community, to focus on cutting carbon emissions.[9] 

Impediments to Clean Power Plan

The two major impediments to the implementation of the Clean Power Plan are the courts and the current administration. The plan’s first major impediment came at the hands of the Supreme Court, which temporarily halted the plan and issued a stay until review before a federal appeals court, after twenty-eight different states fought defeat the plan.[10] The decision was a close 5-4 in favor of the stay, and the court determined the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit would review the case, but left open the possibility of the case returning to the Supreme Court.[11] The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit sat en banc on September 27, 2016 to hear seven hours of argument, where there was debate if the plan interfered with both the Clean Air Act and whether the plan unconstitutionally commandeered the states into complying with the carbon emission levels.[12] The EPA rebutted arguments of the plan’s challengers by asserting the EPA was acting within their expansive level of Chevron Deference under the Clean Air Act.[13]

The plan’s limbo in the federal court system is just one roadblock for the Clean Power Plan under the Trump administration. The White House has scrubbed any mention of climate change from the White House’s website and replaced it with vows to increase fossil fuel development.[14] Furthermore, the new nominee to be the head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has already publicly declared his disagreement with how the EPA has planned to limit the carbon emissions of power plants.[15]


The recent developments in regards to the Clean Power Plan appear to be bleak. Regardless of how the D.C. Circuit rules, the Trump administration will likely ensure that the Clean Power Plan does not materialize. The biggest question is what, if anything, will replace the Obama administration’s crown environmental jewel. Potential alternatives include a proposed carbon tax, which a former group of Republican officials, including former Secretary of State James Baker III, met with the current administration on February 7th to discuss.[16]  Another beacon of hope may come in the form of the individual states. New York is sticking with its carbon reduction plan, hoping to surpass its initial carbon reduction goals, and is investing billions of dollars into renewable energy sources including smart power grids and the nation’s largest offshore wind project.[17] Although, the Clean Power Plan’s demise is seemingly inevitable it appears Obama’s work was not for naught. The Clean Power Plan’s legacy may be in inspiring states to reduce their carbon emissions and invest in renewable energy and even inspire officials across the aisle to come up with new solutions to combat carbon emissions.


[1] Charlie Northcut, Dakota Access pipeline: Is the Standing Rock Movement Defeated?, BBC News (Feb. 9, 2017),

[2] See Andrew Rafferty, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s Pick to Head EPA, Questions Human Impact on Climate Change, NBC News (Jan. 18, 2017),

[3] Emily Holden, What Could Replace the Clean Power Plan?, Scientific American (Jan. 23, 2017),

[4] See Carbon Pollution Emission Guidelines for Existing Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units, 80 Fed. Reg. 64510, 64511-12 (Oct. 23, 2015) (to be codified at 40 C.F.R. pt. 60).

[5]  EPA, Fact Sheet: Overview of the Clean Power Plan (2015),

[6] Id.

[7] Brad Plumer, How Obama’s Clean Power Plan Actually Works —A Step-by-Step Guide, Vox (Aug. 5, 2015),

[8] Id.

[9] Dan Roberts, Obama Unveils Sweeping Cuts to Power Plant Emissions: ‘We have to get going’, The Guardian (Aug. 3, 2016),

[10] Adam Liptak & Coral Davenport, Supreme Court Deals Blow to Obama’s Efforts to Regulate Coal Emissions, The N.Y. Times (Feb. 9, 2015),

[11] See West Virginia v. E.P.A., 136 S. Ct. 1000, 1000 (2016).

[12] See Phillip A. Wallach, The D.C. Circuit Considers the Clean Power Plan, and Our Constitutional Future, Brookings (Sep. 27, 2016),

[13] See id.

[14] See Emily Holden supra note 3.

[15] See id.

[16] See Caitlin Macneal, Former GOP Officials Call For Carbon Tax To Replace Clean Power Plan, TPM (Feb. 8, 2017),

[17] See Jennifer Ludden Et al., As Obama Clean Power Plan Fades, States Craft Strategies To Move Beyond It, NPR (Jan. 25, 2017),