President Obama’s environmental agenda hangs in the balance as federal courts consider whether his administration overstepped its authority in drafting a host of regulations designed to combat pollution and climate change.
The rules under attack range from standards for hydraulic fracturing to carbon dioxide limits for power plants and fulfill various promises the Obama administration has made.
It’s now up to a select group of judges — many appointed by Republican presidents — to shape Obama’s environmental and climate legacy by deciding the regulations pass legal muster.
“We are certainly in a moment where in relatively short order, a lot could be unraveled,” said Justin Pidot, an environmental law professor at the University of Denver who served as a litigator in the Justice Department from 2008 to 2011.
Obama has made it clear that the climate and other environmental policies would be a second-term priority for him and part of what he hopes to define his presidency. But the courts could throw a wrench in those plans.
The latest regulation to face court scrutiny is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new limits on ground-level ozone pollution.
Numerous states and business interests filed lawsuits challenging it in the days after its Oct. 26 publication in the Federal Register, putting the matter before the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The influential DC Circuit, which generally has jurisdiction over regulations, and other federal courts are also mulling over the carbon dioxide limits for existing and newly built fossil fuel-fired power plants, regulations defining which streams and wetlands are subject to the EPA’s authority and Interior Department standards for hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas on federal land.
The latter two rules have been blocked by courts while they consider the cases.
The DC Circuit is also working through how to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year that the EPA did not properly account for the costs of its landmark limits on mercury and other toxic air pollutants from power plants.
The administration’s allies and foes agree that the confluence of litigation is likely a result of officials trying to finish major rules in the waning days of Obama’s presidency.