WASHINGTON – In a major environmental victory for the Obama administration, the Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate the smog-causing pollution from coal-fired power plants that wafts across state lines from 27 Midwestern and Appalachian states to the East Coast.
The 6-to-2 ruling upholds a centerpiece of what has become a signature of President Obama’s environmental agenda: a series of new Clean Air Act regulations aimed at cutting pollution from coal-fired power plants. Republicans and the coal industry have criticized the effort as a “war on coal.”
Regional transport of pollution (of any variety) is analogous to throwing your trash in your neighbor’s yard – there is no credible defense. Legal experts said the decision, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, signaled that the Obama administration’s efforts to use the Clean Air Act to fight global warming could also withstand legal challenges. The E.P.A. is expected to unveil in June a sweeping new climate change regulation, using the authority of the Clean Air Act to rein in carbon pollution from coal plants.
The regulations covering cross-state air pollution, known as “good neighbor” rules, have pitted Rust Belt and Appalachian states like Ohio and Kentucky against East Coast states like New York and Connecticut.
In its arguments before the court, the E.P.A. said the rules were necessary to protect the health and the environment of downwind states. East Coast states in particular are vulnerable to pollution blown by the prevailing winds of the United States.
In her decision, Justice Ginsburg noted that in reining in interstate pollution, regulators must account for the vagaries of the wind. “Some pollutants stay within upwind states’ borders, the wind carries others to downwind states, and some subset of that group drifts to states without air quality problems,” she wrote, adding a biblical quotation from the Book of John: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.”
The utilities and 15 states on the other side of the issue argued that the rules, as written by the Obama administration’s environmental regulators, gave the E.P.A. too much authority and placed an unfair economic burden on the polluting states.
In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, suggested that the regulation was Marxist and unwieldy. As written, the regulation will require upwind polluting states to cut pollution in relation to the amounts of pollution each state produces, but also as a proportion of how affordably a state can make the cuts. In other words, states that are able to more cost-effectively reduce pollution will be required to cut more of it.
“I fully acknowledge that the proportional-reduction approach will demand some complicated computations where one upwind state is linked to multiple downwind states and vice versa,” Justice Scalia wrote. “I am confident, however, that E.P.A.’s skilled number-crunchers can adhere to the statute’s quantitative (rather than efficiency) mandate by crafting quantitative solutions. Indeed, those calculations can be performed at the desk, whereas the ‘from each according to its ability’ approach requires the unwieldy field examination of many pollution-producing sources with many sorts of equipment,” he said, quoting Karl Marx’s “The Communist Manifesto.”
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. recused himself from the case.