WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate emissions produced by coal-fired power plants in order to protect downwind states from deleterious effects of pollution.
The 6-2 ruling in the latest battle of what has been termed the “War on Coal” is a big victory for the Obama administration and environmental groups who maintain burning coal represents a health risk to those with respiratory problems. It also indicates the nation’s highest court is likely to side with the EPA on other issues related to their regulatory powers.
“This is great news for millions of people who suffer from serious health problems caused by the soot and smog-causing pollution from power plants in other states,” said John Walke, director of the Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Implementation of these long overdue protections will prevent thousands of premature deaths and save tens of billions of dollars a year in health costs. The EPA safeguards follow the simple principle that giant utility companies shouldn’t be allowed to dump their dirty emissions onto residents of downwind states. The Supreme Court wisely upheld this common-sense approach.”
But EPA critics maintained the decision will stifle economic development, especially in coal-producing states. Utility companies and coal producers attacked the regulation, maintaining it was unnecessarily broad and require coal-fired facilities to reduce emissions beyond what is needed.
In a joint statement, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Power, said the ruling represents “the latest blow to jobs and affordable energy.”
“The administration’s overreaching regulation will drive up energy costs and threaten jobs and electric reliability,” the pair said. “We cannot allow EPA’s aggressive regulatory expansion to go unchecked. We will continue our oversight of the agency and our efforts to protect American families and workers from EPA’s onslaught of costly rules.”
Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg maintained that the EPA regulation, a modified cap-and-trade system imposed on 28 states to reduce coal-fired power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, was a “permissible, workable, and equitable interpretation” of a Clean Air Act provision that authorizes the agency to protect downwind states from the pollution of upwind states, primarily in the Midwest.
The section, popularly known as the “good neighbor” provision, allows the EPA to limit emissions in certain cases.
“Some pollutants stay within upwind states’ borders, the wind carries others to downwind states, and some subset of that group drifts to states without air quality problems,” Ginsburg said.
In order to protect those downwind states, the EPA “must have leeway in fulfilling its statutory mandate,” Ginsburg held.
In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, charged that the majority essentially rewrote the “good neighbor” provision to the Obama administration’s benefit, insisting the regulatory authority sought cannot be found in the Clean Air Act.
Justice Samuel Alito recused himself from the deliberations.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy immediately embraced the decision, calling it “a resounding victory for public health and a key component of EPA’s efforts to make sure all Americans have clean air to breathe.”
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said the ruling represents “a resounding victory for public health, especially for people living downwind from coal-fired power plants in other states. For too long, these communities have shouldered an unfair burden on their health and wellbeing without the ability to protect themselves and their families from dangerous pollution.”
Brune said protecting the public from cross-state air pollution will prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths annually, help American families avoid 19,000 emergency room visits and prevent 1.8 million missed work and school days each year. The rule will also save Americans up to $280 billion in annual health and environmental costs.
But the benefits were not immediately embraced by all. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), ranking member on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, called the decision “devastating” and said that it “sets the precedent for federal bureaucrats to take great liberties in interpreting and implementing the Clean Air Act.”
“This allows them to completely ignore the concept of cooperative federalism that requires them to work with states in crafting plans to address air pollution,” Vitter said. “Obama’s EPA is already averaging 10 new regulations a day. I worry for the future of our states, EPA’s role in responsibly implementing the Clean Air Act and the destructive impact this could have on our economy.”
Laura Sheehan, senior vice president for communications at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry group, characterized the ruling as “dangerous and costly.”
“EPA continues to abuse the Clean Air Act, imposing overreaching regulations that promise little ‘gain’ with great ‘pain’ for American consumers and the broader American economy,” Sheehan said. “With the Supreme Court’s ruling today, we are profoundly concerned about the costs and reliability impacts of rules like the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and the absence of oversight in identifying and addressing such concerns. While CSAPR is just one example of President Obama’s climate crusade, EPA’s forthcoming carbon rule on existing generating units promises to be the most flagrant and costly abuse of the Clean Air Act to date.”
Coal remains the leading fuel source for electricity generation in the U.S. despite a recent shift toward natural gas, providing nearly 40 percent of the country’s baseload power. The industry has invested $130 billion to reduce major emissions from coal-fueled power plants by almost nearly 90 percent. The industry plans to invest another $100 billion over the next decade to develop and deploy clean coal technology.
The Supreme Court ruling reversed an August 2012 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which held the EPA had exceeded its authority in targeting certain states. The decision was appealed by the Obama administration.
Attorneys general from 14 states, led by Texas, fought against the rule in court, joined by Entergy Corp., Edison International, Peabody Energy Corp. the United Mine Workers of America and several others.