Recent Supreme Court Ruling a Major Victory for Public Health

Photo by David Parsons / NREL

Photo by David Parsons / NREL

By Brock Berglund

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court put in place a protection that will improve air quality, reduce soot and smog pollution from power plants, and reduce life-threatening illnesses when it upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) cross-state air pollution rule in its opinion on the case Environmental Protection Agency v. EME Homer City Generation, L.P.[1] The Court ruled in favor of the EPA, finding that the Agency did not overstep its boundaries when it issued regulations to limit power plant emissions that contributed to air pollution in other states.

The Clean Air Act (CAA) declares that states must prohibit emissions in amounts that “contribute significantly to attainment [of air quality standards], or interfere with maintenance by any other State with respect to any such national primary or secondary ambient air quality standard.”[2] This is often referred to as the Good Neighbor Provision. The EPA interpreted the Good Neighbor Provision to mean that the Agency could use its own cost-benefit analysis to determine whether a state is meeting its emissions obligations. Specifically, the EPA believed it could consider what technologies companies used when making its analysis, giving higher preference to EPA certified technologies. The states and electric utility companies argued that this analysis went too far, taking away their powers to regulate, and sued. The Supreme Court decided to hear their case.

The EPA’s authority to regulate air pollution through its cost-benefit analysis depended on how the Supreme Court interpreted two words: “contribute significantly.” Years of precedent leading up to the case suggested that courts should not overturn federal agency rules based on ambiguous terminology, so long as the given statute’s terms are actually ambiguous and the agency’s rules are reasonable.

The Supreme Court ruled that the EPA’s regulations were reasonable because they “[d]ivied up required emissions reductions among states based on the amount each pollutes and on the cost each would pay to cut cross-border emissions,”[3] and “subjects to stricter regulations those states that have done less in the past to control their pollution.”[4]

Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, American Lung Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Clean Air Task Force and others joined the suit to defend the Cross-State Air Pollution protection. 

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune applauded the ruling. “Today’s ruling is a resounding victory for public health, especially for people living downwind from coal-fired power plants in other states,” said Brune. “The Court’s ruling affirms the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, under the Clean Air Act, to issue standards to protect public health from life-threatening air pollution that travels across state boundaries.”

Victories like this one will help advance the Sierra Club’s work to move beyond coal to clean energy. Get involved! To learn more about our Clean Air and Renewable Energy or Legal Committees, contact us today.

Brock Berglund is a volunteer with the North Star Chapter’s Legal Committee and Communications Team.

[1] http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/12-1182_bqm1.pdf

[2] http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/7410

[3] Supreme Court link in footnote 1

[4] Supreme Court link in footnote 1

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