The power grid that electric vehicles plug into will get cleaner over time. But depending on where you are, the rate at which it cleans up could have a lot to do with something that’s headed to the courts. 

A lawsuit filed Tuesday by 22 states and seven cities, in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, aims to challenge the U.S. EPA’s rollback of the Clean Power Plan, and its easing of restrictions on coal-burning power plants.

The cities behind the suit are Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, South Miami, Philadelphia, and Boulder, Colorado.  

The 2015 Clean Power Plan, which had broad support from the business community and many utilities, was an Obama-era framework intended to update and clean up the nation’s power generation. It required states to make modest carbon dioxide reductions by 2022, and aimed to cut power-sector pollution by 32 percent by 2030 by incentivizing natural gas and renewable energy like wind and solar.

Mulan wind farm [CREDIT: Global Climate Budget 2018]

Mulan wind farm [CREDIT: Global Climate Budget 2018]

To get those reductions, it declared that under the rule “all gas and coal-/oil-fired plants are treated fairly”—a distinction that led to outcry from some states that were heavily dependent on coal. 

As part of an Executive Order on Energy Independence, from March 2017, the Trump Administration called for a review of the Clean Power Plan. The EPA followed that with “a letter informing governors that EPA does not expect the states to dedicate resources to complying with a rule that has been stayed by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

The current alternative, the Affordable Clean Energy rule, bypasses any EPA authority to set rules on greenhouse gases and leaves it up to the individual states. 

Former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt had said that he believed carbon dioxide was not a primary contributor to global warming; he had also joined attorneys representing 27 states alleging that the EPA had overstepped its authority. 

The EPA under administrator Andrew Wheeler, formerly a coal lobbyist, continues to allege that, and any ruling on this case might be seen as a new precedent for whether the EPA has the right (or the obligation) to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. 

Electric power plant outside Ithaca, New York

Electric power plant outside Ithaca, New York

Environmental groups have united against the EPA’s current position. The Sierra Club called the policy “a poorly constructed band-aid for the coal industry’s economic woes,” and the Natural Resources Defense Council said that "with climate change impacts rising, and clean energy costs falling, EPA should be strengthening the Clean Power Plan, not scrapping it for a do-nothing dirty power scheme.”

The Clean Power Plan never actually took effect due to a series of legal challenges. Between that and the current policy, the issue over whether the EPA can and should do something about greenhouse gases may face many more steps, potentially leading up to the Supreme Court.