Supreme Court Casts Doubt on EPA’s “Good Neighbor” Rule Addressing Air Pollution

Credits: The New York Times

In a session marked by skepticism from the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, the fate of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) anti-air-pollution “good neighbor” rule hangs in the balance.

The rule, designed to regulate smokestack emissions from power plants and industrial sources causing pollution in downwind areas, faces legal challenges in 11 states.

The legal dispute stems from objections raised by three energy-producing states—Ohio, Indiana, and West Virginia—along with the steel industry and various groups. They argue that the rule is both costly and ineffective, resulting in a temporary halt in a dozen states pending court decisions.

U.S Supreme Court (Credits: Los Angeles Times)

The current Supreme Court, with a 6-3 conservative majority, has displayed a trend of curbing federal agency powers, including the EPA.

Recent decisions limited the EPA’s authority in addressing air and water pollution, notably a 2022 ruling restricting the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants contributing to global warming.

The ongoing deliberation includes a consideration to overturn the 40-year-old Chevron decision, which forms the basis for upholding various regulations related to public health, workplace safety, and consumer protections.

Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, representing the EPA, argued the significance of the “good neighbor” rule in protecting states downwind from unwanted air pollution.

Beyond health concerns, downwind states, such as Wisconsin, New York, and Connecticut, struggle to meet federal clean air standards due to pollution drifting across state borders.

Judith Vale, New York’s deputy solicitor general, emphasized that a substantial portion, up to 65%, of some states’ smog pollution originates from out-of-state sources. The EPA’s national approach aimed to address ozone pollution but faced criticism for assuming cooperation from all 23 targeted states.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh expressed sympathy for the argument that the EPA plan could impose unreasonable costs on the 11 states still under its authority. He questioned the EPA’s insistence on proceeding with fewer states without thorough explanation or public input.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson raised concerns about the case being heard before other legal challenges concluded. Industry groups opposing the rule contended that it imposes significant immediate costs, potentially impacting the electric grid’s reliability.

Industry lawyer Catherine Stetson highlighted potential costs of “hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars” over the next 12 to 18 months. Despite a claimed 18% reduction in power-plant emissions in states where the rule is enforced, critics argue that the rule has an anti-coal bias and may drive up electricity costs.

The EPA contends that the rule’s enforcement led to emissions reduction in the 10 states where it was allowed, including Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. However, legal battles continue in another dozen states, including Alabama, Texas, and Missouri.

The “good neighbor” rule aims to ensure that states contributing to ground-level ozone submit plans to prevent significant air pollution in neighboring states.

The legal outcome holds implications for public health, as ground-level ozone can cause respiratory issues, particularly impacting vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly.

While environmental and health advocates praise the EPA plan, industry groups criticize it as economically burdensome and biased against coal. The Supreme Court’s decision will significantly influence the trajectory of environmental regulations and federal agency authority.

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