In Michigan v. EPA, the Supreme Court determined that the EPA over-stepped its own core mission after it decided to use the Clean Air Act to regulate the levels of mercury, arsenic and other poisons chemicals emitted by conventional power plants, without considering the burden placed on existing industry. The EPA’s interpretation created a huge cost for both the power plants themselves and individual states; the court determined that the action was not “appropriate and necessary,” within the boundaries of the Act.
In a loss for the Obama administration, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA unreasonably interpreted the Clean Air Act when it decided to set limits on the emissions of toxic pollutants from power plants without first considering the costs of the industry to do so.
The ruling was 5-4, with Justice Antonin Scalia writing for the majority. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent for the four liberal justices.
Bill Schuette, the attorney general for Michigan, the state named in the suit, cheered the ruling, as did several conservative voices.
“Today’s ruling is a victory for family budgets and job creation in Michigan,” Schuette said in a statement. “The court agreed that we can and must find a constructive balance in protecting the environment and continuing Michigan’s economic comeback.”
Earthjustice DC Senior Associate Attorney Neil Gormley, whose group that filed a brief in support of EPA, said the court’s ruling “doesn’t change EPA’s authority to protect the public from toxic air pollution.”
This won’t, of course, stop the EPA, which has shown, quite baldly, its willingness to pursue any measure necessary to put pressure on conventional power plants. The EPA has other measures at its disposal that accomplish a similar mission as their Clean Air Act “re-interpretation” might have, and green groups were quick to note that the Supreme Court did not destroy the Act itself, but merely placed a further burden in the EPA’s way.
On the other hand, the EPA will now be forced to consider whether their regulations are as cost-effective as they claim. This case involved 23 individual states, all of whom sued the EPA over its lack of research. According to documents filed in the case, the EPA estimated “health benefits” to amount to a $4 to $6 million cost savings, mostly in health care. In order to achieve that number, the EPA would require approximately $10 million in upgrades from conventional power plants, a cost which, the plaintiffs noted, would be passed along to consumers and to taxpayers. From now on, regulations of this sort should undergo a full return-on-investment analysis, at least, according to the Court.
All of this should have an impact on upcoming regulations, especially those governing air pollution and related emissions controls. Placing a financial test at the heart of environmental regulation means that the EPA will have to think more practically about how it can exact control.