Climate change legislation and litigation are set to make 2016 an especially contentious year for the U.S. court system. In his last year as president, Obama has pushed forward some of the most far-reaching and comprehensive measures against climate change ever seen with the Clean Power Plan, passing significant powers to the EPA while avoiding a adversarial, deadlock-prone Congress. Opposition to the new regulations has come swiftly with a number of states and industry interests bringing lawsuits to the Supreme Court such as State of West Virginia, et al. v. EPA, which challenges the first-ever federal rule cutting power-plant carbon emissions. The coalition managed to secure a unexpected stay on the rule in early February until litigation around the rule has been resolved in court.
A D.C. Circuit court will rule on the regulation in June. Though the loser of that hearing is likely to appeal to the Supreme Court, the current line-up of justices is likely to be split since the spot left vacant by the sudden passing of conservative Justice Scalia split the court evenly between liberal- and conservative-minded justices. It is expected that the regulation, which would require a 32% cut in power-plant carbon emissions by 2030 disproportionately harming coal interests, will survive the challenge given past precedents, statements by Justice Roberts, and the current state of the Republican Party’s November prospects. Rulings on mercury pollution from coal power plants have already passed through the court system intact resulting in many older facilities being shut down.
On the state level, Massachusetts was added to the list of states investigating Exxon Mobil Corp. for supposedly misleading investors and the public about climate change. The company has funded its own research into climate change since the 70’s initially recognizing the potential dangers of emissions only to later show results in support of skepticism. This court battle is drawing comparisons to the litigation against tobacco companies that ultimately showed that executives were aware of the health risks associated with smoking but buried important evidence that would have harmed their business. Similar accusations have been drawn against the coal giant Peabody Energy. The company reached a settlement last year over its financial statements and disclosures with regard to climate change without substantial repercussions; however, Peabody Energy is at risk of bankruptcy related to a lack of long-term viability.