WASHINGTON (AP) -- In a blow to environmental groups, a federal appeals court agreed Friday to postpone a ruling on lawsuits that challenge Obama-era limits on carbon emissions.
The limits are part of the Clean Power Plan, a centerpiece of President Barack Obama's efforts to reduce emissions from existing power plants. The plan was challenged by a coalition of states and industry groups that profit or benefit from the continued burning of coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels.
The Environmental Protection Agency asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to put the legal fight on hold after President Donald Trump signed an executive order to roll back the plan. Trump has called climate change a hoax, disputing the overwhelming consensus of scientists that the world is warming and that man-made carbon emissions are primarily to blame.
Friday's order from the court agreed to postpone the case for 60 days and asks the parties for guidance on whether the rule should be sent back to the EPA to potentially be revised or repealed.
While not final, the postponement is letdown to environmentalists who vehemently opposed the request for delay. They have urged the court to rule on the merits of the case, despite the change in administration.
"We are in a race against time to address the climate crisis," said Vickie Patton, a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund. "Climate progress and clean energy cannot be stopped by the litigation tactics of polluters."
The Supreme Court last year blocked the plan from taking effect while the appeals court considered whether it was legal. Ten judges on the court of appeals in Washington heard arguments in the case last year and could have issued a ruling at any time.
"Today's decision by the court is a positive step toward protecting West Virginia coal miners and those who depend upon their success," said West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who was among those who challenged the rules. "The court recognized the landscape has changed and that a decision on the merits is not appropriate at this time."
The Clean Power Plan sought to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants by about one-third by 2030, a goal in line with the United States' commitment under the global climate treaty signed by nearly 200 countries in Paris in 2015. About two dozen mostly coal-friendly states and more than 100 companies sued to stop the measure, calling it an unconstitutional power grab. Opponents claim the plan will kill jobs, slash demand for coal and increase electricity prices.
Trump has pledged to reverse decades of decline in a U.S. coal industry under threat from such cleaner sources of energy as natural gas, wind turbines and solar farms. He has also said he plans to "renegotiate" the Paris accord.
In a second order issued Friday, the appeals court in Washington also postponed consideration of a separate case challenging an EPA rule capping greenhouse gas emissions from new or renovated power plants.
Under a prior Supreme Court ruling, EPA is required to regulate carbon emissions. But Trump's appointees could seek to greatly dial back the level of reductions mandated under the Obama-era plan.
Jonathan Adler, a Case Western Reserve University law professor, said the order gives the Trump administration a chance to show it is moving forward with its own regulations to replace the current plan. He noted that the appeals court is requiring the EPA to submit status reports on its progress every 30 days.
"The court doesn't want to rule on something that doesn't have to be ruled upon," Adler said. "At the same time, the court doesn't want the let the agency shirk its obligations, either."
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