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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Scalia’s Ghost Can’t Save Oil, Gas, and Coal

The Clean Power Plan probably got a reprieve when the arch-conservative jurist died.

Bleak news for fossil fuels is piling up higher than an icy Washington snowbank in the capital’s most precipitation-challenged state.

Peabody Energy, the nation’s biggest coal company, is limping toward bankruptcy after its shares sank 99 percent over the past two years. Arch Coal, the industry’s second-largest player, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

King Coal is huddling for warmth with down-and-out oil and gas producers. One out of three of the world’s biggest publicly traded companies in those businesses could file for bankruptcy this year, the Deloitte auditing and consulting firm determined. They collectively owe $150 billion in debt.

“These companies have kicked the can down the road as long as they can,” William Snyder, head of corporate restructuring at Deloitte, told the Reuters news service. “Now they’re in danger of kicking the bucket.”

So it’s no wonder that oil, gas, and coal cheerleaders couldn’t control their glee when, only four days before Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death, the Supreme Court issued a stay that put the Clean Power Plan on hold.

The Court’s unprecedented move froze the federal government’s most powerful tool for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants. Should the Obama administration prevail against the 27 states, Peabody, and the other dirty-energy leaders that are suing over the Clean Power Plan, this policy will expedite the reduction of our nation’s reliance on coal.

It’s also designed to boost the amount of electricity generated nationwide by renewable energy — along with natural gas and other options the government wrongly deems to be better for the climate.
But the dirty-energy lobby’s elation is already fizzling.

The Clean Power Plan now has a 75 percent chance of surviving, says lawyer Brian Potts, who represents companies on environmental regulatory issues. Between the Supreme Court stay and the arch-conservative justice’s death, Potts had pegged the odds of the Clean Power Plan’s enactment at only 10 percent.

It’s already hard enough to keep track of this policy’s prospects. But, just like the extreme weather climate change delivers, this outlook is unpredictable.

What happens with this high-profile Supreme Court case — and many others — will depend on multiple factors. Chief among them is whether Senate Republicans block President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia. 

Then there’s the question of how the lower court rules at a time when the remaining eight justices are evenly split. (In these instances, the lower court’s ruling stands without setting a major precedent.)

Ultimately, no court can save the oil, gas, and coal industries. Fossil fuels are losing their economic edge over renewable energy alternatives at a time when opposition to their extraction, transportation, and combustion is rising and global markets are dissipating.

Meanwhile, these corporations are torpedoing their own financial resilience by overpaying their executives and spending too much on their shareholders’ dividends.

The shift toward a greener energy future won’t be cheap. But since continuing to rely on oil, gas, and coal for most of the world’s energy would destroy the planet, we can’t afford not to make this investment.

The biggest questions are how long this unavoidable transition will take and whether it can happen fast enough to avert a climate catastrophe.

The timing will largely depend on what happens with our political climate. And just like recent weather in our capital city, where a rapid temperature spike made five inches of snow vanish in a single morning, our political climate is pretty volatile.

Columnist Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies.