Cole writes: "Sulfur dioxide causes acid rain and breathing problems. Nitrogen oxide causes ground-level ozone, which is a big problem in cities such as Los Angeles."
Coal-fire plant. (photo: Shutterstock)
Did the Supreme Court Just Kill Dirty Coal Plants and Save the World?
By Juan Cole, Informed Comment
30 April 14
The Supreme Court on Tuesday affirmed that the Environmental Protection Agency has the prerogative to regulate air pollution that spills across state lines. The EPA wants to force 28 states to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from their power plants. Sulfur dioxide causes acid rain and breathing problems. Nitrogen oxide causes ground-level ozone, which is a big problem in cities such as Los Angeles.
The biggest source in the US of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide is coal-burning power plants. A typical coal plant emits 14,000 tons of sulfur dioxide a year, and those plants with environmental controls still put out 7,000 tons a year of the toxic material. Coal plants without special controls put out 14,000 tons of nitrogen oxide a year. Even if they have environmental controls, they still produce 3,000 tons of the stuff a year.
Even without those two toxic substances, coal plants are a major source of carbon dioxide emissions, which are causing climate disruption and global warming.
The coal industry already lost a Federal court case it brought against the Environmental Protection Agency, which is giving coal plant owners a year to clean up their act and stop mercury emissions. (Mercury is a nerve poison and can produce brain damage). The court held that the EPA is authorized by law to regulate such matters.
The Obama administration appears to want to close down the coal plants. Coal-burning produces over 30% of the 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide the US emits every year (1.7 billion metric tons).
Coal power generation can now be replaced by a combination of wind and solar in many states. Natural gas in the US is now often produced by hydraulic fracturing, which is a big emitter of methane gas, an extreme hothouse gas, which should be forbidden lest we cook the planet.
President Barack Obama's administration scored a major victory Tuesday when the US Supreme Court revived regulation limiting harmful emissions that blow across state lines.
A coalition of six progressive and conservative justices clinched the 6-2 vote overturning a lower court decision that a 2011 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule overstepped the agency's authority.
At issue are control measures on emissions of sulfur dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are sometimes blown by the country's prevailing winds across state boundaries, leaving upwind states in violation of clean air standards.
The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, opposed by industry groups and upwind states such as Michigan, Ohio and Texas, requires 28 states to reduce power-plant emissions that harm downwind states' air quality.
It emerges from the Clean Air Act, a centerpiece of the Obama administration's environmental agenda.
Backed by nine states and six cities, the Obama administration argued that the emissions were responsible for one out of 20 deaths in the United States and thousands of cases of asthma.
The Environmental Defense Fund said the "life-saving" rule will save up to 34,000 lives, prevent 400,000 asthma attacks, avoid 1.8 million employee sick days and provide benefits of $120-280 billion each year.
In its ruling, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Washington had said the EPA's approach in setting pollution limits forced certain states to reduce more emissions than they contribute.
The EPA rule determined the cost allocations not just on how much pollution a state produces but also on how affordably the state can cut the emissions.
Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the EPA had followed the "plain text" of the Clean Air Act in enacting the measure also known as the Transport Rule.
"EPA's cost-effective allocation of emission reductions among upwind states, we hold, is a permissible, workable and equitable interpretation" of the law, Ginsburg wrote in the 32-page opinion.
Justice Antonin Scalia, dissenting alongside Justice Clarence Thomas, blasted the majority's "undemocratic revision of the Clean Air Act," criticizing its acceptance of the EPA's cost-based allocation.
Justice Samuel Alito was recused in the case.
"Today's decision feeds the uncontrolled growth of the administrative state at the expense of government by the people," Scalia said in a separate statement read from the bench.
Senate Environment Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer hailed the "major victory in the fight for clean, healthy air."
"By making our air healthier to breathe, EPA's rule will save lives and prevent up to 34,000 premature deaths a year," she added.
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