WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday strengthened the Environmental Protection Agency in its drive to cut air pollution, a result critics warned would lead to costly regulations as the agency moves to curb global warming.
The justices, voting 6-2 to overturn a lower court, backed the EPA’s so-called Good Neighbor rule, which targets air pollution that crosses state lines.
Rhode Island’s Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said of the decision, “For too long, virtually uncontrolled coal-fired power plants have used tall smoke stacks to export dirty air to downwind states like Rhode Island – polluting our skies and endangering our health. Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management could do nothing about those out-of-state polluters; we needed the EPA.”
While the practical impact of the decision may be limited - other rules have already forced most utilities to install pollution scrubbers - the decision effectively gives the EPA wide deference in crafting regulations. That’s a result praised by environmentalists and greeted with fear by dissenting justices and industry groups.
“Today’s opinion is a textbook example of how a court established to ensure government by the people can instead assure government by the bureaucracy,” Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the dissenting opinion, said from the bench yesterday.
Coal-fired power plants, a top source of mercury and acid gases as well as the chemicals blamed for everything from acid rain to climate change, face a series of EPA rules under the administration of President Barack Obama aimed at getting them to clean up. American Electric Power Co., Southern Co. and coal producers such as Peabody Energy Corp. are now bracing for rules to curb greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants set to be issued in June.
“The EPA’s win could encourage the agency to push for a stronger rule rather than a weaker one on the basis that the Supreme Court has validated its interpretation” of the Clean Air Act, Kevin Book, an analyst at ClearView Energy Partners LLC said in a research note yesterday.
It’s just that prospect that has coal companies worried.
“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,” Laura Sheehan, a spokeswoman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said in a statement yesterday.
The cases decided yesterday concerned sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that blow across state lines, causing smog or acid rain in neighboring states.