As Obama's EPA Fights to Regulate Coal Plants, It has Some Deep-Pocketed Friends

President Obama's fight to use his executive authority to cut greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants is anything but a done deal.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency anticipates issuing new standards this summer for regulating the nation’s biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, leaders of both the House and Senate in the GOP controlled Congress have stated their opposition to the new regulations.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, representing Kentucky, a coal producing state, went so far as to urge governors to defy the order, “Don't be complicit in the administration's attack… the administration is standing on shaky legal ground... hold back on the costly process of complying.”

In the EPA's corner, meanwhile, stands a number of foundations and nonprofits that have been on the forefront of the "war on coal." 

We've been closely watching philanthropy's role in this historic fight, which stands as yet another example of private donors helping shape public policy in ways that the Founders probably never quite envisioned. Politico recently ran a long piece spotlighting how Mike Bloomberg has pumped tens of millions of dollars into the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, as we've been reporting. The article began:

The war on coal is not just political rhetoric, or a paranoid fantasy concocted by rapacious polluters. It’s real and it’s relentless. Over the past five years, it has killed a coal-fired power plant every 10 days. It has quietly transformed the U.S. electric grid and the global climate debate.

A quieter front of that war has involved pushing the Obama administration to regulate coal plants and now involves defending that effort in the face of fierce political pushback. The Natural Resources Defense Council, flush with money from big donors, has been closely involved in this fight. So has the group, Earthjustice, which has mounted a vigorous defense of the EPA's power to regulate carbon emissions under the authority of the Clean Air Act.

One of the funders backing Earthjustice is the Hewlett Foundation, which is very much part of the anti-coal cabal in philanthropy. Hewlett has supported the group at various times over the past decade, but recently made its largest grant ever to Earthjustice$1.8 million to help it "expand its legal work at the state public utilities commission level to ensure that new federal standards are taken into consideration in coal plant retirement decisions."

We've mentioned Hewlett's involvement in this issue before. The foundation has been a big supporter of the Partnership Project, a coalition of environmental groups, which has played an important role in pushing the new EPA coal plant rules. 

The focus going forward at the state level is key. To be sure, Congress will do its best to gut the new regulations, but with the GOP dominating statehouses, obstruction at this level could be an even bigger problem. 

Earthjustice knows this terrain well. Over the past twenty years, it has won dozens of Clean Air Act cases to bolster public health protection by ensuring that national standards are applied to local polluters so that they’re accountable for cleaning up dirty air. It describes itself as “the premiere nonprofit environmental law organization.” And its long been pushing to expand the Clear Air Act's purview to include carbon emissions. 

The Bush-era EPA was forced into regulating greenhouse gas emissions through a lawsuit, Massachusetts v. EPA. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Clean Air Act was “unambiguous” and that C02 emissions came under the act’s broad definition of “air pollutant.” 

It took until December 2009 for the Obama administration EPA to issue an “endangerment finding” that the led to the proposed power plant regulations. In 2010, the EPA issued the first-ever federal carbon pollution standards for cars and trucks, which were upheld by a federal appeals court in 2012. In June of 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court once again upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to limit carbon pollution. “The decision keeps the architecture in place for setting national standards to limit carbon emissions from power plants, motor vehicles, and other sources. It also provides clear momentum and authority for the EPA, as the agency moves forward with its recently announced crucial limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants,” said Earthjustice attorney Howard Fox, co-counsel for Environmental Defense Fund in the case.

Now, with the battle on the Clean Air Act entering a new phase, funders like Hewlett rightly see an opportunity to make big gains against coal. Indeed, after many years in which it often seemed that the climate fight was moving at a glacial pace, the recent momentum in curbing the use of coal is striking.

Environmental philanthropy has been needing a big win, and nowespecially if you believe Politicoit's scoring one, with perhaps even larger victories lying just ahead.