Supreme Court Blocks EPA Rules On Power Plant Emissions

Jun 30, 2015

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday ruled against new federal regulations that would crack down on mercury and other toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants. 

While Vermont doesn't have any coal-fired plants within its borders, the state has been concerned about mercury and other toxic substances blowing into the region on winds. 

The ruling hinged on the court’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act, which requires any EPA regulations to do what’s “appropriate and necessary"  to protect the environment.

It’s well within the EPA’s authority to regulate power plants, however.

“The key question was what does word ‘appropriate’ mean?” says Patrick Parenteau, a professor at Vermont Law School.

“Justice Scalia, in writing for majority, said that word is broad enough that it should include the consideration of costs before you take even the first step toward regulating these emissions.”

This 5-4 decision marks a distinct break from an earlier case that upheld the constitutionality of the 1970 Clean Air Act provision to set ozone without considering the financial impact. 

In that 2001 ruling, “the court held that when Congress does not specifically mandate the consideration of cost when you set a public health standard, the court should interpret that standard as not requiring consideration of cost,” says Parenteau.

The high court has asked the EPA to fix the law by incorporating the financial impacts to industry into its rules. 

Meanwhile, some power plants have already begun adopting cleaner technology in anticipation of the regulations going into effect.