Supreme Court Rules Against EPA on Pollution Regulations

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) overreached with its regulation of oil- and gas-fired power plants. According to the ruling, a Clean Air Act amendment intended to check the emissions of mercury and other toxic materials didn’t take into account the financial cost of reducing those pollutants.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court declared that the limits were too costly. By the EPA’s own estimates, installing and operating the equipment necessary to capture the emissions could cost $9.6 billion per year. But the measure might also generate up to $90 billion in benefits annually in worker productivity, not to mention save 11,000 lives per year

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority decision, joined by Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts and Clarence Thomas. Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

“Congress instructed EPA to add power plants to the program if (but only if) the Agency finds regulation ‘appropriate and necessary,’” Justice Scalia wrote in his opinion. “One would not say that it is even rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.”

Introduced in 2012, the regulations were intended to limit the emission of several metallic toxins, including mercury, chromium and arsenic, as well as acid gases and organic air toxins. At the time, the EPA noted that the other major sources of mercury emissions— incinerators for municipal and/or medical waste —had been subject to similar standards and reduced their mercury output by 95%.

There are roughly 1,400 coal- and oil-fired electric generating units across 600 power plants in the U.S. While many of these do have advanced pollution control equipment in place, approximately 40% do not. The EPA legislation curbing the emissions of mercury and other hazardous pollutants had begun to take effect this April. That is now on hold as the case will head back to lower courts.

Photo: Matt H. Wade

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