Supreme Irrelevance?

It’s easily arguable that late June was a decisive time for health care and marriage rights in the United States, but could it have also been a key period for the legislative power—or lack thereof—of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)?

Addressing the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which finalized measures to reduce air pollution from fossil fuel plants by 75%, the Supreme Court ruled in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA that the administration had ignored the required steps in deciding to regulate these pollutants.

In its original plans for regulation, the EPA had not considered industry compliance costs before deciding whether regulation was “appropriate and necessary,” a requirement for hazardous air pollutant regulation under Michigan v. EPA. Rather, the agency first justified its actions with evidence that mercury is highly toxic and that coal-fired plants are the second largest emitters.

It’s important to articulate that it was not that the EPA had falsely compared costs and benefits—they anticipate the benefits to be much greater than the costs, actually—but rather that the EPA had incorrectly assumed that costs should be calculated only when specific limits were set. To dissenting judges, this meant that MATS did not constitute what was “appropriate and necessary” because cost was not a deciding factor in determining to regulate. Now, a lower court will revisit the case further proceedings, giving the EPA a chance to rework the standards.

Although unlikely if the EPA makes necessary changes, if the policy is ultimately struck down in the lower courts, the sheer size of the potential lost benefits is worrying. The EPA’s rules for mercury, arsenic, cyanide, and other gases intended to prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, 130,000 asthma attacks, and over 3 million restricted activity days due to pollution each year. These benefits, in addition to others, amount to an additional $37 to $90 billion each year due to improvements in public health.

Taking into account every dollar spent for compliance, this means each American would get $3-$9 in health benefits each year. Experts even argue that the EPA historically overestimates costs of compliance and underestimates benefits, which would make the benefit to cost ratio even more attractive. In addition, if we somehow monetized purely environmental benefits, like health benefits for aquatic systems, the regulation seems evermore necessary.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, political figures in disagreement with the MATS argue that the regulations would pose a “genuine threat to the affordability of electricity,” and hope that the recent strike down by the Supreme Court is a harbinger for the fate of the Clean Power Plan. According to the EPA, however, electricity prices are projected to stay within historical fluctuations, with annual increases of 3.1% in 2015 falling to 2% by 2020, although price increases in coal-heavy areas would be slightly higher.

Leaders, like Indiana Governor Mike Pence, also point to the ability of states to refuse to comply with the EPA’s new rules by refusing to submit a state plan, a legal action under the Clean Air Act. Indiana receives the majority of its electricity from coal-fired power plants, so the state would face significant payments and restructuring of its energy portfolio under both the MATS and Clean Power Plan. Coal-heavy states like Indiana possess significant power and have much at stake in emission regulations despite having low populations, posing problems for how our federal government manages the effects of nationwide hazards.

But, as numbers show, the environmentally-inclined might actually have little to worry about. First, the ruling against the EPA might not dramatically affect pollution levels because the majority of operating plants have already implemented the technology to reduce mercury emissions, and just 10 percent of coal plants nationwide have received extensions on compliance.

Second, coal, falling deep into “obsolescence”, is threatened by the growing presence of cheap natural gas and solar. The coal industry also witnessed an unprecedented number of plants retire in the past year, primarily in the Midwest. Numbers for coal also dwindle in terms of support: a recent petition against the Clean Power Plan gathered just 7% of necessary signatures, paling in comparison to a similar petition in 2012 to end the “war on coal.”

Thus, despite the ruling by the Supreme Court and the rhetoric of the coal-supporting politicians, the forces against coal are great and varied, powered by the desire to clean the air around us and mitigate climate change globally. And, although some supporters of the ruling draw parallels with the Clean Power Plan, threatening the actions of the EPA at large, that connection appears lost on EPA administration.

Addressing the ruling, Administrator Gina McCarthy stated, “It doesn’t impact other rules and programs that deal with other types of pollution….We are committed to keeping our standards in place to protect our families’ health.”

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


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