The Supreme Court Monday ruled 5-4 against the Obama administration, which sought to use the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to limit certain power plant emissions. The court said the agency “unreasonably” failed to consider the cost of the regulations that were allegedly aimed at curbing emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants set to take effect in April.
The case was brought in front of the court by industry groups and 21 Republican-led states when the agency first decided to regulate the toxic emissions from coal- and oil-fired plants.
Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said it was not “appropriate and necessary” for the administration and the EPA to regulate such emissions by imposing billions of dollars of economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.
“EPA must consider cost — including cost of compliance — before deciding whether regulation is appropriate and necessary,” Justice Scalia wrote. 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.”
The decision is a major blow to the Obama administration, which was just celebrating a major win on the president’s signature health care law, as well as Friday’s historic ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide.
“EPA refused to consider whether the costs of its decision outweighed the benefits,” Scalia wrote. “The Agency gave cost no thought at all, because it considered cost irrelevant to its initial decision to regulate.”
The regulations, by the EPA’s own admission, would have cost the power plants nearly $10 billion a year. For this, the agency expected to reduce the toxic emissions by 90 percent in the long term, yet the issue was whether health risks are the only consideration under the Clean Air Act.
In response, the EPA released a statement claiming it would review the decision and take “any appropriate next steps” when the 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. EPA remains committed to ensuring that appropriate standards are in place,” EPA Press Secretary Melissa J. Harrison said. “The Court’s decision focuses on EPA’s initial finding that it was appropriate and necessary to regulate these emissions and not on the substance of the standards themselves.”
She claimed that for every dollar spent on reducing pollution under these rules, “the American public would see up to $9 in health benefits.”
Scalia was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Justice Elena Kagan, who was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, said she was satisfied with the EPA only considering long-term costs.
“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,” Kagan said.
Yet, this latest case is but one of the administration’s recent attempts to use the Clean Air Act to bury coal-burning power plants, and it won’t be the last. EPA has already drawn up additional rules that are expected to be released this summer, which target plants they say are linked to global warming. States have already challenged those rules even before they were announced, with the Republican-controlled Congress now putting together a bill that would allow states to opt out of any new rules.
A disproportionate share of the 600 affected power plants, most of which burn coal, are in the South and upper Midwest.