WASHINGTON — The White House vowed Wednesday that the United States would still meet international commitments to cut carbon emissions, seeking to allay concerns that the Supreme Court might take away one of its main weapons against climate change.
The court dealt a blow on Tuesday to the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which would steer electricity plants away from burning coal to cleaner fuel sources, delaying its implementation until all legal challenges are decided.
But the White House said it remained confident it would ultimately win the lawsuits brought by industry groups and 29 states opposed to the plan.
And White House spokesman Eric Schultz said the administration has an array of tools available to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to rising global temperatures.
He cited the long-term extension of tax credits for renewable energy that were enacted in last year’s budget deal as an example of other policy measures driving the power sector’s shift to cleaner energy.
“The inclusion of those tax credits is going to have more impact over the short term than the Clean Power Plan,” Schultz said.
Still, the court-ordered pause that could push a final legal ruling back a year or more and onto the desk of the next president raised questions about the U.S. ability to deliver on pledges made at December’s Paris climate talks.
The Paris accord requires countries to set and meet their own national targets to reduce carbon emissions, and the United States presented the Clean Power Plan as a major step to shrink power plant emissions to 32 percent below 2005 levels over the next 15 years.
The prospect of a legal delay and possible rejection of the plan rattled some environmental groups and foreign governments that have embraced the Paris formula.
Outgoing French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was praised for his smooth chairmanship that brought about a deal in Paris, was quoted by French government officials saying the Supreme Court’s move was “not good news.”
Familiarity with US system
But other observers, noting the endemic gyrations of global climate politics over the past two decades, warned against panic over the court’s move.
“No country naively made an agreement with the United States on the basis of one or two of its policies,” said Robert Orr, special adviser on climate change to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“The Paris agreement wasn’t about what commitments were extracted from one country and whether they can be lived up to,” Orr said. “It was a recognition by all the major countries that it is in their own best interest to solve this problem.”
Michelle Patron, formerly a top adviser to Obama’s National Security Council on energy and climate issues, said she expected other signatories to the climate deal to take the U.S. news in stride.
“Our partners are well aware of the legal tests and hurdles that our policies now have to go through, and they’ve seen it before,” Patron said, describing climate diplomats as having a “sophisticated” level of knowledge about the U.S. political system.
Market reaction seemed to reflect a similar long view. Coal companies have blamed clean air regulations for the collapse of much of the domestic industry in recent years, even though much of the power sector’s shift from coal to natural gas has been driven by low prices for the latter.
Coal stocks rose quickly in early trading Wednesday after the court’s move. But after jumping nearly 7 percent early in the session, the Thomson Reuters U.S. coal index was down 3 percent in afternoon trading, reflecting the deeply ingrained skepticism about the long-term prospects for coal.
“Whenever you get a rally in these stocks initially it’s from short-covering that helps propel the stock,” said King Lip, chief investment officer at Baker Avenue Asset Management in San Francisco.
“But people start realizing it’s still very difficult for a lot of these companies because they’re so leveraged. They come back to Earth and the selling starts to pick up again. That’s what you saw today with some of these coal stocks.”