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In a 5-4 decision on Monday, the Supreme Court shot down an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation that would cap power-plant emissions. According to the court, the agency did not properly take into account how much it would cost the plants to reduce pollution under the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

The top court overturned a court of appeals ruling in Michigan v. EPA that sided with the EPA. The state of Michigan had argued that the agency did not abide by the Clean Air Act's directive to regulate in a manner that is both "appropriate and necessary," when it asked power plants to suffer $9.6 billion each year to reduce emissions. That request is not appropriate, the appeals court said, because the reduced emissions would only translate to $4 to $6 million in "quantifiable" benefits.

Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the Supreme Courts' decision on Monday, saying that "the Agency must consider cost‚ÄĒincluding, most importantly, cost of compliance‚ÄĒbefore deciding whether regulation is appropriate and necessary."

The dissenting Justices, however, say that the ruling does not take into account the full context of the EPAs decision, and that it did, indeed, properly take into account cost. Justice Elena Kagan wrote, "the result is a decision that deprives the American public of the pollution control measures that the responsible Agency, acting well within its delegated authority, found would save many, many lives."

According to the EPA, that figure is about 11,000 lives per year. Reuters reports:

When the EPA issued the regulation, it outlined what it saw as the rule's costs and benefits, including preventing up to 11,000 premature deaths annually. The agency also said the regulation could generate billions of dollars in benefits including a reduction in mercury poisoning, which can lead to developmental delays and abnormalities in children. Overall, the EPA said the benefits could be worth up to $90 billion a year.


Ironically, the ruling‚ÄĒwhich comes as¬†a major defeat for the Obama Administration‚ÄĒlikely won't matter all that much in Michigan. The Detroit Free Press explains:

The decision was a loss for President Barack Obama's administration, which had argued in favor of the regulations, but it may have little effect in Michigan, where environmental officials say the state already has in place a mercury emissions standard that will kick in if the EPA rule is removed.

Still, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette called the ruling "a victory for family budgets and job creation in Michigan," adding, "we can and must find a constructive balance in protecting the environment and continuing Michigan's economic comeback."


The EPA, not surprisingly, is unhappy with the decision. In a statement sent to Fusion by email, an agency spokeswoman said: "The EPA is disappointed that the Court did not uphold the rule," adding, "this rule was issued more than three years ago, investments have been made and most plants are already well on their way to compliance." The statement continued:

The Mercury Air Toxics Standards were issued to protect the health of all Americans from toxic air pollution, including mercury, from power plants.  EPA estimated that for every dollar spent to reduce toxic pollution from power plants, the American public would see up to $9 in health benefits.


Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.