Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney-general, said that a Thursday court hearing on plans to slash greenhouse gas emissions from coal power plants was only “round one” in a fight he is leading from the US’s conservative heartland.
Mr Pruitt argues that the president’s green regulator, the Environmental Protection Agency, is breaking the law by imposing state-by-state targets for cuts in carbon dioxide emissions and denying state governments a final say.
If his arguments prevail in the courts it will be a devastating blow for Mr Obama, jeopardising his effort to leave a legacy of decisive action on global warming with a policy dubbed the Clean Power Plan.
“What we see with the current EPA approach is almost an attitude that the states are a mere vessel of federal will,” Mr Pruitt said in his Oklahoma City office. “The [EPA] cannot simply bypass the statute. The process matters. And they have breached that with this proposed rule.”
An EPA spokesman said that lawsuits challenging the proposal before it was finalised were “premature”, but added: “We are confident in the legal underpinnings and the foundation on which the Clean Power Plan is built.”
A defeat for the White House would upset talks on a global climate change deal due to be finalised in Paris at the end of this year, not least because the US needs to close more coal power plants to achieve goals set in a landmark climate deal with China last year.
The US pledged to emit 26–28 per cent less greenhouse gas in 2025 than it did in 2005, while Beijing said it would ensure Chinese emissions peaked by about 2030.
Thomas Lorenzen, a former environmental lawyer at the justice department under Mr Obama and President George W Bush, said the EPA did appear to have “usurped” the role of states.
“If [the plaintiffs] win the states’ rights challenge the EPA will have to rethink and it’ll be much harder to meet the emissions reduction targets it set,” he said. “It would be disastrous for the administration’s international agreements.”
On Thursday the US court of appeals for the DC circuit will hear arguments on two lawsuits against the proposed power plant regulations, which were unveiled last June. One comes from a group of states led by West Virginia and Oklahoma and the other is from Murray Energy, a coal company.
If the proposals survive those challenges, Mr Pruitt – who accused the White House of having an “anti-fossil fuel mentality” – said there would be a new round of attacks once the regulations are finalised this June.
“There’s going to be litigation and there should be . . . because agencies should not be able to make it up as they go,” he said.
Electricity generation is the largest single source of carbon dioxide in the US, accounting for about one-third of emissions. The rest come from transportation, industry and agriculture.
Mr Pruitt said humanity’s contribution to global warming was “subject to considerable debate”. Told that 97 per cent of scientists endorsed the idea that humans had caused climate change, he said: “Where does that fit with the statutory framework? That’s not material at all. So that’s why I don’t focus on it.”
The Obama administration, he said, was naive to believe that US action on global warming would set an example to the rest of the world.
“To think that somehow this country taking aggressive steps like the [president’s] climate action plan is going to somehow influence India and China to magically change how they do business is absolutely legendary. It’s fanciful.”