Environment

U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Obama's EPA Limits on Air Pollution

Landmark 5-4 decision is major setback for Obama's efforts to set limits on amount of mercury, arsenic and other toxins coal-fired power plants can spew into air, lakes and rivers.

Photo Credit: Ungnoi Lookjeab / Shutterstock.com

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down new rules for America’s biggest air polluters on Monday, dealing a blow to the Obama administration’s efforts to set limits on the amount of mercury, arsenic and other toxins coal-fired power plants can spew into the air, lakes and rivers.

The 5-4 decision was a major setback to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and could leave the agency more vulnerable to legal challenges from industry and Republican-led states to its new carbon pollution rules.

It was also a blow to years of local efforts to clean up dangerous air pollution.

The justices embraced the arguments from the industry and 21 Republican-led states that the EPA rules were prohibitively expensive and amounted to government overreach.

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The decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, ruled that the EPA did not reasonably consider the cost factor when drafting regulation.

The Clean Air Act had directed the EPA to create regulations for power plants that were “appropriate and necessary”. The agency did not consider cost when making its decision, the court ruled, but estimated that the cost of its regulation to power plants would be $9.6bn a year.

Scalia was joined by the conservative members of the bench. The dissent, written by Elena Kagan, was supported by Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor.

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The landmark decision closes a chapter on a two-decade-long effort to force stricter emissions standards for coal-fired power plants.

The regulation, adopted in 2012, would have affected about 600 coal-fired power plants across the country — many of which are concentrated in the midwest and the south.

It was already going into effect across the country. But Republican governors and power companies challenged the EPA’s authority, saying the agency had mishandled estimates of the cost of the new rules.

RELATED: EPA Moves to Regulate Airplane Emissions Under Clean Air Act, Citing Danger to Human Health

The EPA and campaigners have argued that the public health costs posed by the toxic air pollutants outweighed those to utility companies forced to fit new control equipment.

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Suzanne Goldenberg is the U.S. environment correspondent of the Guardian and is based in Washington DC. She has won several awards for her work in the Middle East, and in 2003 covered the US invasion of Iraq from Baghdad. She is author of Madam President, about Hillary Clinton's historic run for White House.

Raya Jalabi is a reporter/editor at the Guardian U.S.

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