Georgia joins suit trying to block Obama climate change plan


Story highlights:

  • Georgia has joined two dozen states in opposing a forced reduction of carbon emissions, a key part of President Barack Obama's climate change agenda.
  • But the state is also working on a plan that officials said will improve on the federal policy in case the legal challenge fails.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency announced the regulations in August, when it eased the original proposal for Georgia, which has already put in motion plans to reduce its power plant emissions by 25 percent by 2030.
  • The Obama administration and other supporters say the plan will help blunt the impact of carbon pollution and jump-start the creation of new jobs in the wind, solar and nuclear fields.

  • Critics of the plan say that restricting power generation hampers economic growth, that renewable energy is not reliable enough and that Obama's efforts will have little practical effect on climate change.

Georgia filed a lawsuit Friday to block President Barack Obama’s ambitious climate change agenda, joining two dozen states in opposing a forced reduction of carbon emissions.

But the state is also quietly working on a plan that officials said will improve on the federal policy in case the legal challenge fails.

The Environmental Protection Agency regulations announced in August were softer on Georgia than originally proposed, and the state has already put in motion plans to reduce its power plant emissions by 25 percent by 2030. Still, the state's Republican leaders accused the Obama administration of economy-damaging overreach that will drive up energy costs.

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said the new regulations were a “classic example of the Obama administration’s pattern of attempting to accomplish with regulation what it cannot achieve with legislation.”

The Clean Power Plan is the White House's most forceful effort yet to combat climate change, with the goal of moving away from coal-fired power and reduce planet-warming carbon emissions.

It lets states and utilities determine how to generate electricity under the new guidelines, and Georgia Power is already reducing its reliance on coal, particularly with the nuclear facilities at Plant Vogtle under construction.

The Obama administration and other supporters say the plan will help blunt the impact of carbon pollution, jump-start the creation of new jobs in the wind, solar and nuclear fields, and shut down the hundreds of coal-fired power plants that emit the most carbon pollution.

“We expect polluters and their allies to throw everything they’ve got at the Clean Power Plan, and we expect them to fail,” said Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director. “The Clean Power Plan is based on a law passed by Congress, upheld by the Supreme Court and demanded by the American people.”

Critics, though, say that restricting power generation hampers economic growth, that renewable energy is not reliable enough and that Obama's efforts will have little practical effect on climate change — particularly with China surpassing the U.S. as the world's top carbon emitter.

“We worry it will be harmful to Georgia’s economy,” said Judson Turner, the head of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division. “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it in the best way that’s mindful to Georgia’s business climate.”

Regulation option followed block by Congress

During his first term, when Congress was in Democratic hands, Obama tried and failed to pass a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. Since then, he has gone around Congress and tested the limits of the EPA’s powers to regulate heat-trapping gases most scientists say lead to rising temperatures.

Most of the 24 states filing the legal challenges are led by Republicans, but four states governed by Democrats joined in contending that Obama’s move is an unprecedented power grab.

“Petitioners will show the final rule is in excess of the agency’s statutory authority, goes beyond the bounds set by the United States Constitution, and otherwise is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with the law,” the states wrote in a short filing.

The legal battle is widely expected to wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court. The EPA has laid the groundwork for years, first by establishing that greenhouse gas emissions are harmful to human health, and thus fall under the purview of the Clean Air Act. (That finding was upheld in court.)

“We are confident we will again prevail against these challenges and will be able to work with states to successfully implement these first-ever national standards to limit carbon pollution, the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said.

The administration has said the regulation is not only legal but vital. World leaders will gather in Paris later this year for a climate summit, and the U.S. plan could help encourage other big nations to band together on a climate pact with the goal of preventing what many scientists predict will be devastating sea level rise and other global warming fallout.

The White House and environmental groups paint a dirty picture of Georgia’s carbon-damaged environment. Asthma, for example, harms 8 percent of adult Georgians and 11 percent of the state’s children, according to the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Amid fierce opposition, though, the Obama administration scaled back the sharp reduction of greenhouse gases it first required for Georgia.

That plan would have restricted Georgia to release no more than 834 pounds of carbon per megawatt hour by 2030. A later draft allowed Georgia to release 1,049 pounds per megawatt hour, a more readily achievable goal. It also delayed the start of the new emissions targets from 2020 to 2022.

Georgia leaders, who have unsuccessfully challenged key tenets of the Affordable Care Act and other Obama policies in similar multistate suits, are readying a contingency in case the courts dismiss the lawsuit. Turner, the head of the EPD, said the agency is working with utilities, politicians, local governments and others on what he calls a “delicate” dual-track strategy.

“These are big decisions, and they’re still in front of us,” he said. “Georgia is going to be very deliberate moving forward, and we’re going to take the time we’ve got to be deliberate and thoughtful about the outcome.”