Coal and the Supreme Court

Transmission tower and a cooling tower in a green landscape. Tuscany Italy. Geothermal power is a form of alternative and sustainable energy production

A recent 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court on Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency (No. 14-46) will require the EPA to rewrite its proposed regulations of toxic emissions from the coal industry. The court cited the requirement in the Clean Air Act for regulations to be “appropriate and necessary.” The ruling centered on two arguments: whether the EPA should perform a cost-benefit analysis before considering regulation, versus later in the process when setting standards for emission, and how the benefits to such regulation compare to the costs of industry implementation.

Opponents claim that the regulations provide only $6 million in benefits and will cost $9.6 billion to implement. The EPA claims more substantial economic benefits to cutting down on emissions of toxic pollutants such as mercury: tens of billions of dollars. The rewritten regulations will add in another cost-benefit analysis, in addition to the ones already conducted, to clarify this issue.

An EPA spokeswoman asserted that the ruling was not about the agency’s right to regulate these emissions, but rather when in the regulatory process costs should be considered. She reiterated the agency’s commitment to public protection and pollution reduction. Congressional Republicans claimed that the ruling supported their legislative attempts to counteract governmental regulatory overreach. Given the EPA analyses and industry investment in compliance that has already been done, it is possible, even likely, that the law will remain in effect while revisions are completed.

This is part of a larger initiative by the Obama administration, in the form of Clean Air Act regulations, to cut coal-fired carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. The rule includes multiple options for states to reduce emissions, including participation in “cap and trade” and integration of alternative energy sources. A recent Supreme Court ruling on one of these regulations, in a clear victory for the EPA, requires the installation of “scrubber” technology in coal plants whose air pollution is known to drift into states with more stringent air quality laws. Another ruling on the regulation of carbon emissions was considered an EPA partial win. The court upheld the right of the EPA to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions of larger contributors of pollution, as long as they already require permits for their emissions, but rejected the regulation of small emitters such as apartment buildings and restaurants.

About the author:

Margaret Strain is an anthropologist, educator and caretaker working to promote sustainability in the State of Arkansas. Visit our website to learn more about how you can partner with Paradigm to improve your organization’s sustainability performance.