By DAVID B. RIVKIN, JR. and ANDREW M. GROSSMAN
Sept. 25, 2016, in the Wall Street Journal
After Congress turned down President Obama ’s request to enact a law regulating power plants’ greenhouse-gas emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency turned to the states—not with a request, but with instructions to carry out the president’s energy policy. The EPA’s “Clean Power Plan” now faces the scrutiny of the nation’s chief regulatory review court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
If the Constitution’s federalism is to endure, the Clean Power Plan must be struck down.
The Constitution establishes a federal government of limited and enumerated powers while the states retain a plenary “police power,” subject only to the specific limitations of federal law. This is what Justice Anthony Kennedy called the Constitution’s “genius”: It “split the atom of sovereignty” to ensure accountability when meeting both local and national concerns, while fostering rivalry between the two levels to curb excessive political ambition that might threaten liberty.
Only in recent decades did politicians learn how to realize their ambitions through collusion. The federal government now entices states with transfer payments to establish and administer social-welfare programs. And, in schemes that the courts describe as “cooperative federalism,” it offers states the choice to regulate their citizens according to federal dictates, as an alternative to the feds regulating directly and having states get out of the way.
Even these approaches were not enough for the Obama administration to cajole the states to carry out its energy agenda. So it resolved to obliterate one of the last vestiges of the Constitution’s vertical separation of powers: the bar on federal commandeering of the states and their officials to carry out federal policy.
The Clean Power Plan is enormously complicated, but its overall approach is straightforward. Previous emissions regulations have focused on reducing emissions from particular facilities, but this one relies on shifting electricity generation from disfavored facilities (coal-fired power plants) to those the EPA prefers (natural gas and renewables). The EPA then determined what, in its view, is the maximum amount of such shifting that each of the nation’s regional electric grids could possibly accommodate and calculated the emissions reductions.
Parcel those figures out by state, factor in additional reductions due to estimated efficiency improvements at older plants, and the result is state-specific reduction targets. The states can elect to achieve those targets themselves—or, if they decline, the EPA will do it for them. “Textbook cooperative federalism,” says the EPA.
Not quite. Whether or not the states choose to implement the plan directly, it leaves them no choice but to carry out the EPA’s federal climate policy. That’s because the EPA can destroy but not create. It can regulate emissions of existing facilities, but it lacks the legal authority to facilitate the construction and integration of new power sources, which is ultimately the only way to achieve the plan’s aggressive targets.
That duty falls to the states, which the plan depends upon to carry out what the EPA calls their “responsibility to maintain a reliable electric system.” Doing nothing, as in the cooperative federalism scenario, is not an option.
So this is how the plan works: The EPA pushes coal-fired plants off the grid, and then counts on the states to ensure that the resulting reductions in capacity are matched by increases in EPA-preferred forms of power generation. State agencies will have to be involved in decommissioning coal-fired plants, addressing replacement capacity—like wind turbines and solar arrays—addressing transmission and integration issues, and undertaking all manner of related regulatory proceedings. All this to carry out federal policy.
The Clean Power Plan implicates every evil associated with unconstitutional commandeering. It dragoons states into administering federal law, irrespective of their citizens’ views. It destroys accountability, by directing the brunt of public disapproval for increased electricity costs and lost jobs onto state officials, when the federal government deserves the blame. And it subverts the horizontal separation of powers, by allowing the executive branch to act where Congress has refused to legislate.
One can only wonder what will be left of our constitutional order if the plan passes judicial muster.
The federal government would no longer be a government of limited powers, but instead be able to compel the states to do its bidding in any area. The states, in turn, would be reduced to puppets of a federal ventriloquist, carrying out the dirty work for which federal actors wish to avoid accountability. And the federal executive, in many instances, could effectively create new law by working through the states, free of the need to win over Congress.
So it is difficult to imagine a U.S. where the Clean Power Plan is the law of the land. It would not be the same country, or the same Constitution, that Americans have enjoyed all these years.
Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington, D.C., and represent the State of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality in their challenge to the Clean Power Plan.