The Supreme Court on Monday said the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency erred by not considering costs when it issued landmark 2011 regulations controlling emissions of mercury and other toxins from power-company smokestacks.
The court’s 5-to-4 decision halts further implementation of the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards rule, which required hundreds of coal-burning plants to install equipment to control mercury, a substance linked in multiple studies to respiratory illnesses as well as birth defects and developmental problems in children.
But the decision’s immediate impact could be muted, as many of the country’s electricity utilities had already taken steps to comply with the rules ahead of a deadline next year. EPA officials said the agency was reviewing its options while also noting that the justices focused on a cost-accounting procedure, and not on the agency’s ability to regulate toxic smokestack emissions through the Clean Air Act.
“EPA remains committed to ensuring that appropriate standards are in place to protect the public from the significant amount of toxic emissions from coal and oil-fired electric utilities and continue reducing the toxic pollution from these facilities,” EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority, which included Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissenting opinion for Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
The court was not deciding whether the law required the agency “to conduct a formal cost-benefit analysis in which each advantage and disadvantage is assigned a monetary value,” Scalia wrote. “It will be up to the agency to decide (as always, within the limits of reasonable interpretation) how to account for cost.”
It has taken decades to achieve the EPA’s goal of regulating mercury and other hazardous air pollutants. Some of the regulations have already gone into place, and they are to be fully implemented by 2016.
But they have been challenged by industry groups and 21 Republican-led states in which hundreds of the older plants are operating.
The issue comes down to what Congress meant when it ordered the EPA to study whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate the pollutants from power plants. The directive was silent on whether that study should include the costs of regulation.
Objecting states and the industry contended that costs traditionally are a part of such decisions.
The costs and benefits of the regulations are a matter of vigorous dispute. The challengers say that the annual costs of compliance under the rule would be $9.6 billion but that the benefits of reduced emissions of hazardous air pollutants amount to only $4 million to $6 million.
The EPA and environmental groups estimate the savings to be much more, from $37 billion up. Mercury can be especially dangerous to pregnant or breast-feeding mothers and young children, and some of the savings are calculated as coming from preventing as many as 11,000 deaths and more than a half-million lost days of work.
Environmental groups blasted the court’s decision, though some activists and legal experts said the setback was temporary. William J. Snape III, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the ruling meant only that “EPA must go through the paper exercise of calculating costs, and presumably benefits, of “necessary and appropriate” regulatory authority that the statute clearly gives the agency.
“The Supreme Court did not vacate the rule, which means it stays in place, at least for now and maybe for a while,” Snape said. “This just adds to the immense pressure to put in place meaningful and durable greenhouse gas rules, with actual emission reductions, this summer.”
But industry groups and congressional Republicans praised the ruling as an overdue rebuke to the EPA.
“As children, we learn that every day can’t be Christmas. EPA just learned that today,” said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a group of power plants. “The agency cannot continue to write rules without regard to their cost, simply because the agency believes its cause is just.”
The combined cases are Michigan v. EPA; Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA; and National Mining Association v. EPA.