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Cities and States Are Split Over Obama's Clean Power Plan

The divide on the legality of the EPA’s big climate effort is the latest local government fissure.

Reuters / Jim Urquhart

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the Clean Power Plan, it was destined for legal controversy. Not only does the policy form the spearpoint of President Obama’s strategy of fighting climate change through executive actions, it regulates carbon emissions from power production as a pollutant and requires each state to cut those emissions. That will mean the biggest shakeup in how the nation produces energy since the grid was built.

State governments swiftly launched a counterattack. Led by coal-producing West Virginia, 26 attorneys general have filed suit against the CPP, arguing it will wound the coal industry, make electricity more costly, and reduce the grid’s reliability. But even as lots of local leaders at the state level pushed back against the new policy, many officials at the municipal level embraced it with open arms.

That became clear in November, when 18 states announced they were supporting the plan. And it became clearer still on December 22, when the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors joined 13 cities and a county in filing a motion to participate in the case as amici curiae—in other words, they officially signaled their intention to contribute arguments to the case in favor of the EPA’s rule. About one third of the cities involved are located in states suing the plan, including Salt Lake City in Utah, Houston in Texas, and several cities in Florida.

The reason the local governments are filing this amicus brief is because local governments and cities are on the front lines of climate change impacts,” says Michael Burger, author of the motion and executive director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “Their involvement as amici in this litigation sends a clear message to the court that the Clean Power Plan enjoys widespread nationwide support from local government leaders.”

Widespread, indeed. The National League of Cities represents some 19,000 communities throughout the country and the U.S. Conference of Mayors speaks for the 1,200 cities with more than 30,000 residents. Of course, it’s impossible to know what effect an amicus brief will have on the outcome of the litigation, but this motion certainly counters a narrative that local governments oppose the plan on the grounds of federal overreach.

The city-state split over CPP also constitutes another installment in the ever-growing list of policy disagreements between local leadership, such as openness toward immigration and tolerance toward Syrian refugees. In this case, demographic trends and electoral politics have resulted in cities that lean far more progressive on the issue of climate change than their state legislatures do. Cities have a lot of power to lead the way on cutting emissions and adapting to future climate threats. But legal obstruction of the CPP marks a very tangible way that state leaders can thwart municipal sustainability efforts.

The outcome of the CPP lawsuit will have huge implications for the ability of the U.S. to meet its commitments to cutting carbon. Burger says it’s likely the case will make its way up to the Supreme Court. Whichever way the ruling goes, the local blocs forming around this legal battle may foretell the nature of the climate change struggle in the years to come.

About the Author

  • Julian Spector
    Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.