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Health & Medicine

Supreme Court Rules against EPA on Mercury Emissions

— June 29, 2015


Photo courtesy of Bloomberg News
Photo courtesy of Bloomberg News

After a historic week in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to legalize gay marriage, as well as delivering a decision that will likely entrench Obamacare as the law of the land, the Court handed President Obama a major defeat to his environmental agenda. On the last day of the Court’s session, it ruled 5-4 along ideological lines against tougher Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards to dramatically lower mercury emissions in coal-fired power plants. The rules were created in 2012 and were set to go into effect this year. The ruling majority cited cost as the major factor for its decision, with the EPA estimating that the new standards would cost plants roughly $9.6 billion annually. Analysts for each side, however, have maintained vastly differing opinions as to the amount of economic benefit the standards would provide. In its decision, the Court ruled that the EPA “interpreted unreasonably when it deemed cost irrelevant to the decision to regulate power plants,” with challengers claiming that the EPA regulations violate the Clean Air Act’s requirement that regulation be “appropriate and necessary.” In his majority opinion, Justice Antonin 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. Statutory context supports this reading.” Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, Breyer, and Bader-Ginsberg cast dissenting votes.

The lawsuit against the changing EPA standards was filed by 21 Republican-led states as well as several industry groups who accuse the EPA of not performing a cost-benefit analysis before introducing the regulations. Although the EPA challenged that it did not have to take cost into account, instead emphasizing the public health benefits, the agency did ultimately perform the analysis. Both industry groups and the EPA estimated similar costs for the regulations, however, Justice Elena Kagan noted in her dissent the EPA’s findings that new the rules would eventually save $37-$90 billion annually, as well as to prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths. An industry analysis, however, only estimated about $6 million in annual cost savings. Mercury pollution is especially toxic to children and pregnant women, and has been linked to birth defects and premature birth. The ruling does not strike the law down completely; instead the agency will be required to review and rewrite the measures, taking cost into account. The revised regulations will likely be challenged as well back down in lower courts.

The ruling is a win for Republicans, who believe the rules to be an example of the administration’s desire to over-regulate environmental concerns at the expense of business and the economy. Utility lobbyist, Scott Segal, reacted to the ruling saying, “They’ll need to take a hard-nosed economic analysis that the Supreme Court calls for,” however EPA spokesperson, Melissa Harrison, indicated that the EPA will continue to pursue restrictions on mercury emissions, given the public health concern. Sean Donahue, representing environmental and public health groups that joined the EPA in fighting the lawsuit, reacted by saying “The E.P.A. will have to do more homework on costs. But I’m very confident that the final rule will be up and running and finally approved without a great deal of trouble. This is a disappointment. It’s a bump in the road, but I don’t think by any means it’s the end of this program.” House Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), decried the most recent case as an example of the Obama administration’s overaggressive environmental agenda, saying, “From its ozone to greenhouse gas to navigable waters rules, the E.P.A. continues to burden the public with more and more costs even as so many are still struggling to get by and improve their lives in this economy.” Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) concurred, tweeting “#SCOTUS took an important step to help ensure the EPA takes into account the true cost of excessive regulations on the American people.”

The mercury regulations are one of several environmental measures that have been championed by the Obama administration in recent years, including winning two key Supreme Court decisions during the 2014 session regarding new rules to fight pollution that wafts across state lines, and on a measure to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Despite winning those decisions, the court informed the EPA that it would limit the agency’s authority if it overstepped its mandates. It is also expected that the EPA will introduce tougher climate change-related greenhouse gas regulations later in the summer, a move that is expected to face similar legal challenges by industry groups and congressional Republicans. In addition to these measures stemming from the Executive branch, legislation is being introduced in both houses of Congress to reform the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), widely considered to be one of the weakest laws in the U.S. Code. Industry groups have long fought successfully to block reforms to the law, which has led to toxic substances like asbestos and formaldehyde to remain legal despite mounting evidence of their danger. The two bills, especially the compromise House of Representatives legislation, may actually please the industry as well as environmental groups enough to prevent a legal challenge while drumming up enough support for passage. That is not a certainty however, because much like the EPA’s mercury regulations, the House TSCA reform mandates that scientific evidence, and not cost be the primary driver of the EPA’s guidelines.



New York Times – Adam Liptak and Coral Davenport

U.S. News and World Report/AP – Sam Hananel

Yahoo/AFP – Chantal Valery





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