The Supreme Court on Tuesday handed the Obama administration an important victory in its effort to reduce power plant pollution that contributes to unhealthy air in neighboring states.
In a 6-2 decision, the court upheld a rule adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 to limit emissions from plants in more than two dozen Midwestern and Southern states. The pollution drifts into the air above states along the East Coast, and the EPA has long struggled to devise a way to control it.
Power companies and several states, including Texas, sued to block the rule from taking effect, and a federal appeals court in Washington agreed with them in 2012.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the court’s majority opinion, which reversed the lower court ruling. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. Justice Samuel Alito took no part in consideration of the case.
Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution from power plants can be carried long distances and the pollutants react with other substances to form smog and soot, which have been linked to illnesses. The cross-border pollution has prevented many cities from complying with health-based standards set by law.
The new downwind pollution rule was triggered by a federal court throwing out the previous rule penned by the Bush administration. The new rule would cost power plant operators $800 million annually in 2014, according to EPA estimates. That’s in addition to the $1.6 billion spent per year to comply with the 2005 Bush rule that was still in effect until the government drafted the new one.
The EPA said the investments would be far outweighed by the hundreds of billions of dollars in health care savings from cleaner air. The agency said the rule would prevent more than 30,000 premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of illnesses each year.
Texas led 14 states and industry groups in challenging the rule. Most downwind states support it.
States had argued, and the lower court agreed, that they deserved a chance to figure out how much they were contributing to pollution in other states and how to reduce it before the EPA prescribed fixes. The lower court also faulted EPA for requiring states to reduce pollution through a complex formula based on cost that did not exactly match how much downwind pollution a state was responsible for.
The high court said the EPA was allowed under the Clean Air Act to implement federal plans in states that had not adequately addressed pollution that blows downwind. The court also ruled that the EPA also was authorized to consider how costly controls on pollution are and did not have to require states to reduce exactly the amount of pollution that they contribute to downwind states.
“In short, we are satisfied that EPA’s construction of the statute reasonably responded to a perplexing problem the statute itself does not resolve,” Ginsburg said.