Supreme Court to hear arguments Tuesday over EPA pollution rules


Delaware Gov. Jack Markell listens during a session of the National Governors Association meeting in August. He and seven other governors have petitioned the EPA to force upwind states to reduce pollution that travels to their states. (Morry Gash/AP)

The Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday on whether the Environmental Protection Agency can require Midwestern states to cut the smog and soot that travels from their power plants downwind to Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

The arguments come a day after governors in eight of the downwind states filed a petition with the EPA to try to force their neighbor states to reduce their straying emissions regardless of the court ruling.

After the EPA issued the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule in 2011, 15 states challenged it in court. It was struck down by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in August 2012.

The regulation requires utilities in 28 states and the District to install new pollution controls and establish a limited cap-and-trade system that allows utilities to buy and sell pollution credits to comply with the new standards. But the appeals court ruled in a 2 to 1 decision that the rule was costly, burdensome and arbitrary.

The Supreme Court will also be hearing a challenge to a 2011 EPA rule requiring coal- and oil-fired power plants to control emissions of mercury and other poisons for the first time. That rule remains in effect and has prompted some utilities to shutter older facilities because it is cheaper to replace them with new, gas-fired plants than install pollution controls.

Republicans have criticized both rules as examples of federal overreach that will increase electricity prices and cost jobs. Supporters counter that the public health benefits far outweigh the costs; the EPA estimates that taken together the two rules would prevent as many as 45,000 deaths, 19,700 heart attacks and 530,000 asthma attacks each year when fully implemented.

“With these blockbuster court arguments, December 10th marks the biggest day for clean air in the history of American courts,” said John Walke, clean-air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.

On Monday, the governors petitioned the EPA to require nine states — Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia — to reduce emissions they say are causing their citizens respiratory diseases and public health problems.

The eight downwind states — Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont — say that they have spent billions to reduce their own air pollution but that pollution from elsewhere still overwhelms their environments.

“Delaware’s air quality remains overwhelmed by air pollution from upwind states — even though we have reduced emissions within Delaware of ozone-forming pollution by more than 70 percent since 1990,” Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) said in a statement. “While Delaware’s in-state sources are well-controlled with state-of-the-art technology, this is simply not true of our upwind neighbors. As a result, Delaware pays more for healthcare resulting from respiratory illnesses and our industries are forced to do more than those in the states causing the pollution, and that’s simply unfair.”

The governors of all eight downwind states are Democrats; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has not signed on to the petition.

More than 95 percent of the pollution floating through the air in Delaware comes from other states, Markell said. The story is similar in other Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, where between 70 percent and 98 percent of ozone air pollution comes from upwind states.

All the petitioning states have joined the Ozone Transport Region. States that join the regional compact have to take action to clean their air and replace high-polluting fuels with newer, cleaner technology. The downwind states have been critical of states to their west, where coal power dominates as a source of energy for power plants and factories.

States are allowed to petition the EPA to add their neighbors to an Ozone Transport Region under the Clean Air Act.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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