Supreme Court Hears Suits over EPA Mercury Regs

The U.S. Supreme heard oral arguments March 25 in three lawsuits together that challenge how the Environmental Protection Agency regulates oil- and coal-fired power plant pollutants, specifically targeting mercury emissions.coal plants

The issue is in a nutshell is “Whether the Environmental Protection Agency unreasonably refused to consider costs in determining whether it is appropriate to regulate hazardous air pollutants emitted by electric utilities.”

Fox News reported:

The costs of installing and operating equipment to remove the pollutants before they are dispersed into the air are hefty—$9.6 billion a year, the EPA found.

But the benefits are much greater, $37 billion to $90 billion annually, the agency said. The savings stem from the prevention of up to 11,000 deaths, 4,700 nonfatal heart attacks and 540,000 lost days of work, the EPA said. Mercury accumulates in fish and is especially dangerous to pregnant or breastfeeding women, and young children, because of concern that too much could harm a developing brain.

A disproportionate share of the 600 affected power plants, most of which burn coal, are in the South and upper Midwest. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, representing 21 states at the Supreme Court, said the law requires the EPA to take account of costs before deciding whether to step in. The states and industry groups also said the agency overstated the benefits of reducing mercury emissions.

The petitioners—mostly Republican-led states and industry groups—claim is that the EPA, unlawfully, did not perform the “cost” part of a cost-benefit analysis. In its petition for a writ of certiorari, the National Mining Association wrote, “No rational person would see spending $9.6 billion for $4-6 million in return as an appropriate exchange.”

The industry groups say the Environmental Protection Agency is overstepping its authority under the Clean Air Act by issuing the series of regulations. Republicans have attacked the rules as a “war on coal” and an example of what they say is the executive branch’s overreach. Both groups say the EPA regulations will eliminate jobs and impede  the power industry’s ability to handle electrical demands.

On the other side, the respondents in the lawsuits—the federal government and some allied groups—argue that the EPA took costs into account properly. Specifically, they argue that the relevant statutes require taking costs into account when determining the precise level of regulation to bring down on a plant, but not when determining whether or not to regulate a plant in the first place. They also argue with the petitioners’ calculations, citing huge potential benefits down the road from the elimination of toxic emissions like mercury.

The lawsuits indirectly raise the political question whether the EPA’s regulations are legitimate or part of President Barack Obama’s campaign prediction that under his watch electric rates would “necessarily skyrocket.”