Government & Politics

Supreme Court upholds EPA rule on cross-state pollution

In an important anti-pollution ruling, the Supreme Court on Tuesday backed federally imposed limits on power plant emissions from states, including Missouri and Kansas, that burden downwind areas with bad air.

The 6-2 ruling was a victory for the Obama administration in controlling emissions from power plants in 27 Midwestern and Appalachian states that contribute to soot and smog along the East Coast.

It capped a decades-long effort by the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that states are good neighbors and don’t contribute to pollution problems elsewhere. It was the EPA’s third attempt to solve the problem after a tough fight from upwind utilities and states.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said Tuesday the fight isn’t quite over. There are still Kansas-specific issues not considered in the decision and his office will continue to assert that the EPA unlawfully rejected the state’s plan to meet federal air quality standards.

“We are disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision today and agree with the dissent that the EPA acted outside of its statutory authority in adopting the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule,” he said.

Missouri was among the first states to contest the rules, and utilities in Missouri and Kansas once warned of dire consequences from the EPA regulations. They said the rules would close coal-fired power plants, sharply raise costs to consumers and even cause rolling brownouts.

But the reaction among Missouri and Kansas utilities was mixed Tuesday. Some said they were still studying the decision, while others declared they weren’t nearly as worried as they once were.

Westar said its concerns since 2011 had waned because it took advantage of the long time the case took to reach the high court and made upgrades.

“That time was sure valuable,” said Gina Penzig, a Westar spokeswoman.

Ameren, a St. Louis electric utility, said it already met the new regulations.

KCP&L said it was studying the court decision. It has been retrofitting the La Cygne coal-fired power plant, which it owns with Westar, to cut pollution. And its newest coal-fired plant, Iatan 2, already meets the proposed standard.

Still, KCP&L pledged to meet federal regulations.

So did the Board of Public Utilities in Kansas City, Kan.

“The Supreme Court decision is not the one we were hoping for, (but) we will continue to comply with the law and serve our customers with reliable and affordable electricity,” said David Mehlhaff, a spokesman for the BPU.

John Hickey, head of the Missouri Sierra Club, hailed the decision, saying it would speed up efforts in the state to use more renewable energy and put more emphasis on energy conservation.

The EPA rules were triggered by a federal court throwing out a previous Bush administration regulation. The Bush era rule remained in effect while the courts weighed challenges to the new version.

The new rules would cost power plant operators $800 million annually, starting in 2014, according to EPA estimates. Some $1.6 billion per year has been spent to comply with the 2005 Bush rule.

The EPA says 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.

Foes of the EPA rules said the decision could embolden the agency to take the same tack later this year when it proposes rules to limit carbon pollution. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said the agency will be flexible and work with states on the first-ever controls on power plants for the gases believed to contribute to global warming.

Power companies and several states sued to block the rule, and a federal appeals court in Washington agreed with them in 2012.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed that decision. Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg acknowleged the complexity of the rules and argued that regulators “must account for the vagaries of the wind.”

The court said the EPA, under the Clean Air Act, can consider the cost of pollution controls and does not have to require states to reduce pollution by the precise amount they send to downwind states.

As written, the regulations will require upwind polluting states to cut pollution in relation to the amounts of pollution each state produces, but also as a proportion of how affordably a state can make cuts. States that are able to more cost effectively reduce pollution will be required to cut more of it.

Justice Antonin Scalia, in a vigorous dissent, said, “Today’s decision feeds the uncontrolled growth of the administrative state at the expense of government by the people.” Reading part of his dissent from the bench, Scalia said the result “comes at the expense of endorsing, and thereby encouraging for the future, rogue administration of the law.”