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Tug Of War Over Obama's Clean Power Plan Takes Center Stage In Colorado


The Obama administration's Clean Power Plan has divided the states. That's because it requires power plants to reduce carbon emissions. More than two dozen states have sued to stop the plan. Many others are in favor. Dan Boyce of member station KUNC reports from Denver where this tug-of-war could head to the state supreme court.

DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: When it comes to disdain over regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, Colorado attorney general Cynthia Coffman is true to her Republican roots.

CYNTHIA COFFMAN: The state has the right to determine its own destiny.

BOYCE: That's Coffman during an interview shortly after she joined the lawsuit against the Clean Power Plan last month.

COFFMAN: When the federal government edges in and tries to direct that against regulatory policy, then the states have an obligation to ask a question.

BOYCE: Coffman makes similar arguments about federal overreach in two other lawsuits she's joined this year - one from Wyoming challenging proposed federal fracking laws and one in North Dakota against a rule of the Clean Water Act. All three of these lawsuits put her at odds with the state's Democratic Governor. Indeed, attorneys general and governors are split on the Clean Power Plan in at least three other states - Maryland, Michigan and Iowa.

Colorado's governor, John Hickenlooper, strongly favors the Clean Power Plan. He's a former oil and gas geologist who's made a name for himself advocating for strong regulations on the energy industry. In fact, Hickenlooper wrote a letter in May to U.S. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell saying Colorado intends to comply with the Clean Power Plan. The Attorney General may represent the people of the state, but Hickenlooper argues the governor is legally the voice of the people. In other words, he's the AG's client.

JOHN HICKENLOOPER: Generally, a lawyer can't file a suit without the client saying we want this suit to be filed.

BOYCE: He's so frustrated with Coffman's lawsuits that he's gone to the state Supreme Court. He wants it to weigh in on who is actually in charge of suing the federal government - the governor or the AG.

JUSTIN PIDOT: I think the truth probably lies somewhere in between and is also probably somewhat uncertain.

BOYCE: That's University of Denver associate law professor Justin Pidot. He says Colorado law could support both claims. And ultimately, a decision that either the governor or the AG has all the power may work against the state political system.

PIDOT: We're likely to see much less coming together on consultation.

BOYCE: All the legal back-and-forth here is leading progressive Boulder, Colo., to strike out on its own. The city has officially joined the 24 other states and communities fighting in favor of the Clean Power Plan. Boulder's regional sustainability coordinator, Jonathan Koehn, says the city didn't want to wait on the sidelines until the state made up its mind.

JONATHAN KOEHN: It is municipalities, cities and local jurisdictions that are going to be harmed the most. We are the ones that are on the front lines of climate change. We'll suffer the impacts most greatly.

BOYCE: All of this means Colorado is making a pretty confusing statement about the Clean Power Plan on the national stage, but it's also an accurate reflection of how divided the country is over the plan. For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce in Denver.

CORNISH: And that story comes to us from Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focusing on America's energy issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.