By Laura Barron-Lopez - 04/29/14 08:01 PM EDT
The Supreme Court in a 6-2 decision Tuesday upheld a rule that allows the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate air pollution from power plants that crosses state lines, handing a major victory to President Obama.
The rule, a pillar of Obama’s second-term climate change agenda, requires 28 states in the East, Midwest, and South to cut back on sulfur and nitrogen emissions from coal-fired power plants that “contribute significantly” to air problems in other states.
“Victory for lungs everywhere: SCOTUS recognizes dirty air doesn’t stop at state borders, upholds #EPA pollution rules,” John Podesta, a senior adviser to Obama, wrote on Twitter.
A decision against the administration could have imperiled much of Obama’s environmental agenda. The cross-state pollution rule and other regulations in the works all cite powers under the Clean Air Act.
But by ruling that the EPA maintains authority to regulate nitrogen and sulfur emissions from coal plants, the justices raised the bar for the legal challenges that will likely be filed against the administration’s proposals to regulate carbon emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants.
“EPA’s cost-effective allocation of emission reductions among upwind States, we hold, is a permissible, workable, and equitable interpretation of the Good Neighbor provision,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion.
Under the Clean Air Act, the Good Neighbor provision gives the EPA the authority to regulate interstate pollution that interferes with the country’s ability to maintain or achieve national air quality standards, which protect public health.
Ginsburg was joined in her written opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, while Justice Samuel Alito recused himself from the case.
EPA chief Gina McCarthy called the ruling a “resounding victory for public health.”
“The court’s finding also underscores the importance of basing the agency’s efforts on strong legal foundations and sound science,” McCarthy said in a statement.
The EPA finalized the pollution rule in 2011, but the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down last year, after a challenge from 15 upwind states and utilities.
Opponents of the regulation argued that, until the EPA fills in the blank on what “contribute significantly” means, they cannot adequately regulate or enforce the pollution rule, leaving states to guess.
But the EPA contended that the rule allows states three years to form their own implementation plan while giving upwind states flexibility.
Republicans said the ruling would embolden the administration to exercise broader regulatory powers.
“The administration’s overreaching regulation will drive up energy costs and threaten jobs and electric reliability,” Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) said in a statement. “We cannot allow EPA’s aggressive regulatory expansion to go unchecked.”
Whitfield said the House Energy and Commerce Committee would do everything in its power to keep the administration from overreaching.
A number of energy companies also said they were concerned by the ruling.
The industry-backed Electric Reliability Coordinating Council said it is “essential for the EPA to remain flexible” with states when implementing the cross-state air pollution regulation.
“As we stand at the precipice of new carbon regulations, we are concerned that EPA may be emboldened to take actions that undermine cooperation with the states. If they so do, there could be severe consequences for electric reliability and affordability,” Scott Segal, director of the electric council, said.
Green groups cheered the Supreme Court for upholding the EPA’s “common-sense approach.”
“The EPA safeguards follow the simple principle that giant utility companies shouldn’t be allowed to dump their dirty emissions onto residents of downwind states,” said John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Environmental Defense Fund and Sierra Club hailed the decision and exhorted the EPA to move forward with the rules.
“What is critical next is that EPA promptly move forward with implementation,” said Pamela Campos, an attorney with the defense fund.
Once fully implemented, the pollution rule is expected to help cut back the “one in 20 deaths in the U.S., 200,000 non-fatal heart attacks and 90,000 hospital admissions” a year that are a result of ozone exposure and fine particle emissions, according to the EPA.
It is also estimated that the rule will save people across the designated states billions of dollars in annual health and environmental costs.
Updated at 8 p.m.