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Supreme Court Tosses Limit on Power Plant Emissions
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The Supreme Court has ruled that a limitation on mercury emissions was improper, due to the Environmental Protection Agency’s alleged failure to consider the costs involved with such a regulation.

Summary: The Supreme Court has ruled that a limitation on mercury emissions was improper, due to the Environmental Protection Agency’s alleged failure to consider the costs involved with such a regulation.

According to the Huffington Post, the Obama administration’s efforts to require power plants to reduce their mercury and other toxic emissions was halted by the Supreme Court on Monday.


The case before the court examined the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of mercury and various other emissions from power plans under the Clean Air Act. According to Republicans, Obama was engaging in presidential overreach, and the act was seen as a “war on coal.”

The court ruled 5-4 that the EPA “unreasonably” interpreted the law when it did not consider the costs of compliance with the new regulations.

In the majority opinion, penned by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court stated, “EPA strayed well beyond the bounds of reasonable interpretation in concluding that cost is not a factor relevant to the appropriateness of regulating power plants.”

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However, Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor drafted a frustrated dissent in response. They argued that the EPA did consider the costs of complying with the new regulations, just not when limiting mercury emissions was first discussed.

The dissent, written by Justice Kagan, reads, “Over more than a decade, EPA took costs into account at multiple stages and through multiple means as it set emissions limits for power plants. And when making its initial ‘appropriate and necessary’ finding, EPA knew it would do exactly that – knew it would thoroughly consider the cost-effectiveness of emissions standards later on.”

Justice Kagan added that the majority’s interpretation is “A peculiarly blinkered way for a court to assess the lawfulness of an agency’s rulemaking… The Agency acted well within its authority in declining to consider costs at the opening bell of the regulatory process given that it would do so in every round thereafter – and given that the emissions limits finally issued would depend crucially on those accountings.”

In December of 2011, the EPA finalized rules that limited the release of mercury, acid gases, and heavy metals. Many newer plants are able to reduce these emissions, but the rules targeted those plants that did not reduce them. The new regulations impacted about 600 power plants in the United States, most of which use coal as their primary fuel source.

Supreme Court Tosses Limit on Power Plant Emissions

In response, industry groups and 23 states challenged the new rules, arguing that the EPA did not consider the cost of compliance, which was estimated to be around $9.6 billion.

Obama has also moved to block drilling in Alaska.

The EPA countered that the health benefits the public would enjoy from reducing emissions would be at least three times the compliance costs. According to the Washington Post, multiple studies have linked mercury to respiratory illnesses, birth defects, and developmental problems in children. USA Today adds that environmental groups argued that 4,200 to 11,000 lives could be saved every year with the new regulations.

Melissa Harrison, an EPA spokeswoman, said, “We are reviewing the decision and will determine any appropriate next steps once our review is complete. EPA is disappointed that the Court did not uphold the rule, but this rule was issued more than three years ago, investments have been made and most plants are already well on their way to compliance.”

The issue before the court was an interpretation of “appropriate” in the new regulation and whether “appropriate” had to include the costs of compliance. The specific regulation under review was a line in the Clean Air Act that stated the EPA “shall regulate” emissions if the agency finds that “such regulation is appropriate and necessary.”

Last year, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in a greenhouse gas case.

In the majority opinion, Justice Scalia wrote, “It is not rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.”

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The ruling was criticized by environmental groups, which argued that the EPA should be able to alter the mercury rule to comply with the decision.

Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, commented, “The Court has sided with the Dirty Delinquents – the small percentage of coal-fired plants that haven’t cleaned up – and against the majority that are already protecting our children from mercury and other toxic pollutants. It’s critically important for our nation that these life-saving protections remain in place while EPA responds to the Court’s decision, and EDF will focus its efforts on ensuring these safeguards are intact.”

The mercury regulation was one of several that aimed to limit emissions, specifically those from coal plants. The EPA is also finalizing rules that seek to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and their final drafts should be released in the next few weeks.

Read about those regulations here.

Source: Huffington Post

Photo credit:, LexisNexis (Supreme Court Justices)





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