Arkansas officials are evaluating what steps to take in response to the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily halting a federal rule limiting carbon emissions at power plants.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge joined the lawsuit with 26 other states challenging the Environmental Protection Agency rule, commonly known as the Clean Power Plan or section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. The plan was a key piece of President Barack Obama's policy platform to combat climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
In Arkansas, the state Public Service Commission and Department of Environmental Quality had been hosting regular stakeholder meetings with utilities, business interests and environmental groups to come up with a compliance strategy. The first stakeholder meetings on the proposed plan from the Environmental Protection Agency were held in the summer of 2014. The rule was finalized last summer.
Nationally, the Clean Power Plan would have required states to collectively reduce power plant CO2 emissions by roughly a third by the year 2030. Arkansas's mandated reduction target was 35 percent . Most states were to submit compliance plans by September, though Arkansas officials intended to request an extension.
ADEQ Director Becky Keogh and APSC Chairman Ted Thomas released a joint statement Wednesday, saying they were pleased with the issuance of a stay, but said their agencies would be ready if the plan were ultimately upheld.
“The granting of the stay indicates that the Supreme Court has serious reservations about the legality of the Clean Power Plan,” they said. “We will strive to balance our obligation to be wise stewards of taxpayer money with our obligation to be fully prepared should the Supreme Court ultimately uphold the plan.”
Likewise, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, reiterated his administration's support for the challenge, a day after Attorney General Rutledge released her own statement.
“The case raises important legal issues the Supreme Court should address and the end result will certainly impact Arkansans,” Hutchinson said.
In an interview, John Bethel, the executive director of the Public Service Commission, says discussions surrounding the rule's potential implementation should carry on, however.
“The stakeholder process will continue to evaluate what steps will be necessary to comply with the plan should it be upheld. Those activities might proceed on a modified time line once we understand more what that might be,” Bethel said.
The ADEQ's Keogh agreed that although the meetings with stakeholders will likely take a different shape, the process will continue in some form.
“Obviously we'll proceed to make sure that our actions are consistent with the action of the Supreme Court ruling in terms of preserving our planning or our resources in an appropriate level before we know the final outcome,” she said.
The Supreme Court was split in its decision to issue a stay, with four of the court's more liberal justices dissenting. They were overruled by the five other justices. The court's action was taken with a measure of surprise by many legal observers around the country, who've noted that it was an unprecedented step.
“From the read on the legal side, it was a unique action,” Keogh said.
But the number of states involved in the lawsuit, the investment decisions being made by utilities and the level of coordination required by state agencies warranted a stay, Keogh says.
“I believe it was probably an appropriate call on the Supreme Court's part.”
Many opponents of the plan predict that it will lead to electricity rate hikes for customers, as utilities shift from cheap coal generating units (Arkansas produces more than half of its electricity with coal fired plants), to newer, renewable forms of electricity like wind and solar. Business advocates have warned that Arkansas's manufacturers would be especially impacted by a rise in rates, forcing them to potentially lay off workers as a means of cutting costs.
But Glen Hooks of the Sierra Club of Arkansas, a leading state environmental advocate and supporter of the Clean Power Plan, said in a statement after the Supreme Court issued its order that the benefits of a shift to renewable forms of energy would ultimately be helpful to the state.
“The Clean Power Plan is an important step in battling the effects of climate disruption, and can can also dramatically improve the health of Arkansans while boosting our state's economy,” he said.