A divided Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to halt enforcement of President Barack Obama's sweeping plan to address climate change until after legal challenges are resolved.
The surprising move is a blow to the administration and a victory for the coalition of 27 mostly Republican-led states, including Indiana, and industry opponents that call the regulations "an unprecedented power grab."
By issuing the temporary freeze, a 5-4 majority of the justices signaled that opponents made strong arguments against the rules. The high court's four liberal justices said Tuesday they would have denied the request for delay.
“The Supreme Court's stay of President Obama's Clean Power Plan sends a critical signal that the EPA cannot overreach its authority," U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, said in a written statement. "This rule will cause irreparable harm to Hoosiers and our economy, and is a clear example of executive overreach under this president.”
The Obama administration's plan aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions at existing power plants by about one-third by 2030. The Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that the plan will do little by itself to reduce climate change, but the U.S. is hopeful that the effort will prompt other countries to implement their own plans.
Meeting agency standards for reducing carbon dioxide would lead to an estimated $90 billion in climate and health benefits while costing utilities as much as $8.8 billion, according to the EPA.
"We disagree with the Supreme Court's decision to stay the Clean Power Plan while litigation proceeds," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement.
Earnest said the administration's plan is based on a strong legal and technical foundation, and gives the states time to develop cost-effective plans to reduce emissions. He also said the administration will continue to "take aggressive steps to make forward progress to reduce carbon emissions."
A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., last month refused to put the plan on hold. That lower court is not likely to issue a ruling on the legality of the plan until months after it hears oral arguments beginning on June 2.
Any decision will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court, meaning resolution of the legal fight is not likely to happen until after Obama leaves office.
Compliance with the new rules isn't required until 2022, but states must submit their plans to the EPA by September or seek an extension.
Many states opposing the plan depend on economic activity tied to such fossil fuels as coal, oil and gas. They argued that the plan oversteps federal authority to restrict carbon emissions, and that electricity providers would have to spend billions of dollars to begin complying with a rule that might end up being overturned.
“Hoosiers know that coal means jobs and low-cost energy for our state, and tonight’s Supreme Court decision to put President Obama’s carbon dioxide regulations on hold is a win for Indiana," Gov. Mike Pence said in a statement. "The Clean Power Plan exceeds the authority granted to the EPA under the Clean Air Act, and I am pleased that it will not be enforced while the lawsuit filed by Indiana and 28 other states and state agencies moves through the courts. Hoosiers may be assured that our state will continue to use every legal means available to fight President Obama’s war on coal.”
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia, whose coal-dependent state is helping lead the legal fight, hailed the court's decision.
"We are thrilled that the Supreme Court realized the rule's immediate impact and froze its implementation, protecting workers and saving countless dollars as our fight against its legality continues," Morrisey said.
Implementation of the rules is considered essential to the United States' ability to meet emissions-reduction targets in a global climate agreement signed in Paris last month. The Obama administration and environmental groups also say the plan will spur new clean-energy jobs.
In opposing the request for delay, the EPA argued that states had plenty of time to comply with the requirements as the rule is rolled out over the next six years.
"A stay that delays all of the rule's deadlines would postpone reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and thus contribute to the problem of global climate change even if the rule is ultimately sustained," U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said in legal filings.
Environmentalists were stunned by the court's action, which they stressed did not reflect a decision on the relative strength of the Obama administration's case.
"The Clean Power Plan has a firm anchor in our nation's clean air laws and a strong scientific record, and we look forward to presenting our case on the merits in the courts," said Vickie Patton, a lawyer for Environmental Defense Fund, which is a party to the case.
To convince the high court to temporarily halt the plan, opponents had to convince the justices that there was a "fair prospect" the court might strike down the rule. The court also had to consider whether denying a stay would cause irreparable harm to the states and utility companies affected.
The unsigned, one-page order blocks the rules from taking effect while the legal fight plays out in the appeals court and during any further appeal to the Supreme Court, a process that easily could extend into 2017.
Voting to grant the delay were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Dissenting were the four Democratic appointees: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.