Administration tries to fix air pollution rule after Supreme Court loss

Administration tries to fix air pollution rule after Supreme Court loss

The Obama administration moved Friday to repair the problem with a major air pollution rule that the Supreme Court said last year was illegal.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a formal notice amending the 2012 limits on mercury and other toxic air pollutants from power plants, saying that the costs of regulating the emissions are reasonable and far outweighed by the public health benefits.

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Regulators had previously made a similar finding during the process of writing the rule, but the Supreme Court said that analysis should have happened before the agency even decided to start writing it.

The action closes a major chapter in the fight over the landmark regulation dubbed MATS, one of the most expensive Obama administration rules and the reason for a recent wave of closures of coal-fired power plants, which often require retrofits to comply. It means the EPA can continue enforcing the rule for now — which it started doing in April 2015 — although even the Friday fix is likely to be challenged by the same Republican states and energy industry interests who led the previous litigation.

The EPA said its supplemental change “is confirming that it is appropriate and necessary to regulate emissions of toxic air pollutants, including mercury, nickel, arsenic and others, from power plants. This finding is particularly well-founded in light of the significant health risks toxic air pollution pose to the American public, and the fact that the public benefits achieved by the 2012 standards far outweigh the costs.”

The agency largely took the cost-benefit analysis that it had already completed and applied it to the supplemental change. That predicted public health benefits of up to $90 billion annually due to reductions in the ailments caused by those airborne pollutants.

The rule is separate from the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which limits carbon dioxide pollutants from power plants. That regulation is being litigated and was put on hold by the Supreme Court.

In last year's Michigan v. EPA, the court ruled that the Clean Air Act had a specific mandate, only for the mercury rule, that the EPA first find that such a regulation is “necessary and appropriate,” and that the EPA ought to have completed a cost-benefit analysis before it decided to regulate.

But the Supreme Court declined to put the mercury rule on hold. In the 5-4 ruling, the justices did not ask the EPA to stop enforcing the rule. Later, both the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts refused to halt the rule.