Utah lauds, environmentalists lament Supreme Court for limiting EPA on clean power

Gov. Spencer Cox insists the state is making gains without federal rules, but green groups warn climate change is going largely unchecked.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune 10/23/2009 Coal truck leaves the coal-fired Hunter Power Plant just south of Castle Dale after making a delivery. Plants like Hunter would have faced restrictions under the Clean Power Plan, but the U.S. Supreme Court has limited EPA's power to regulate the carbon production that causes climate change.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox cheered the U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, while environmental groups warned that the decision sets back efforts to clean up the state’s power grid.

Jennifer Napier-Pearce, Cox’s senior communications adviser, said the governor is “thrilled” with the decision.

“We believe that states are best situated to develop ways to reduce emissions, and we’ve been successful in doing so,” she said. “Even without the implementation of the Clean Power Plan, Utah’s energy sector emissions dropped by 15.5% between 2008 and 2019 while California’s energy sector emissions dropped by only 6.4% and the nation as a whole dropped by 11.6%.”

The decision doesn’t change anything in terms of how Utah’s coal plants or other carbon emissions are regulated. That is because the high court earlier had stayed enforcement of the law while the case was litigated. As it stands, there is essentially no government regulation that requires more climate-friendly energy in Utah — now or in the future.

Utah was one of 26 states that sued to block the Clean Power Plan back in 2016, and Thursday’s ruling marked a victory for those states.

“This case has always been about who has the power to make these decisions,” said Utah Solicitor General Melissa Holyoak. “The Supreme Court rightly recognized that Congress did not give the [Environmental Protection Agency] the authority to make these significant national policy decisions regarding how Americans get their energy. The decision corrects the EPA from unlawfully imposing measures that cost hundreds of billions of dollars and impact millions of Americans.”

David Eskelsen, senior communications specialist at Rocky Mountain Power, said RMP’s parent company, PacifiCorp, is reviewing the ruling “and will analyze any potential implications. We are developing the 2023 edition of the Integrated Resource Plan, with an expected filing date of the second quarter of 2023.”

RMP operates two large coal-fired power plants in Emery County that supply electricity to Utahns. Those plants would have fallen under Clean Power Plan regulations.

For environmental groups, the court’s decision is another sign that climate change remains largely unaddressed in Utah.

“We’re disappointed in today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision, which goes to extraordinary lengths to limit the federal government’s ability to tackle the ongoing climate crisis,” said Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance legal director Steve Bloch. “The court’s radical and activist agenda poses a real threat to federal agency oversight and management of public lands, air and waters that will have real implications in Utah.”

Logan Mitchell, Utah Clean Energy climate scientist and energy analyst, was disappointed in the decision. “We need every tool in the toolbox to reduce emissions at the scale and pace necessary to meet the climate challenge.”

Mitchell noted that while the decision limits the EPA’s authority, it does reaffirm that the agency has some ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. And it puts responsibility on Congress to face up to the challenge.

“This decision underlines the importance of congressional leadership on climate change,” he said. “The EPA cannot be the sole source of climate innovation. Republicans and Democrats need to act to accelerate clean energy.”

Joro Walker, general counsel for Western Resource Advocates, said it’s time for the state step up in the push for clean energy.

“What this means for Utah is that Utah needs to do its part to reduce emissions like its neighboring states,” Walker said. “The effort that was struck down would have reduced carbon emissions from power plants by 30% by 2030. Utah should now create a plan to do it.”

Such an achievement, Walker noted, would also help address air quality.

Last month, the Utah Office of Energy Development released its latest state energy plan, but it makes only passing mention of climate and the need to reduce carbon emissions. The only climate-related goal the state has is to produce 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025, which the state is expected to hit. That goal was set in 2008, and the Utah Legislature has refused to set a new goal since.

“As you’ll note in our updated energy plan, Utah is committed to supporting a clean energy future through a strong and responsible mining program for critical minerals; investment in emerging energy technology such as hydrogen, storage, and energy efficiency; and air quality research and incentive programs,” Napier-Pearce said. “We’ll continue to support efforts and policies that provide a variety of tools and resources that citizens, communities, businesses and industries can choose from to deliver or obtain clean, affordable and reliable energy.”

Thirty-eight states have carbon-reduction goals on the books, and nearly all of them are more aggressive than Utah’s.

An Illinois watchdog group, the Citizens Utility Board, put out a report this year that said Utah has the cheapest electricity in the nation, but it is in 43rd place for the cleanliness of that electricity.