Supreme Court blocks EPA’s ‘Good Neighbor’ plan to reduce smog

The Supreme Court on Thursday dealt a major blow to the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality regulations, suspending a major initiative aimed at improving public health by reducing smog-forming pollution from power plants and factories that cross state lines.

This is the third time in as many years that the court’s conservative majority has sharply challenged the EPA’s authority to regulate pollution, following rulings in 2022 and 2023 targeting the agency’s ability to limit gases. greenhouse effect and protect wetlands from runoff.

In this year’s case, a divided court sided 5-4 with states, trade associations and companies seeking a pause in the agency’s ambitious “good neighbor” plan as ‘they challenged it in a lower court.

The manner in which the decision was reached is remarkable: the judges took up the case on an emergency basis while it was still pending before the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. Usually, the High Court waits until proceedings in lower courts have concluded before embarking on such challenges.

The ruling angered liberal judges and environmentalists, who questioned what was so urgent when the regulations won’t take effect until mid-2026. They also said the ruling could encourage the industry to challenge other regulations before they are launched. The Supreme Court generally only accepts challenges to these rules after they take effect.

The states of Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia, along with other groups calling for the plan to continue, argued that it was unworkable and illegal, and would force industries to spend billions for improvements to reduce pollution and could even lead to electricity and heating shortages. by forcing the plants to close.

The EPA argued that those concerns were unfounded and said the plan was essential for the health of residents of downwind states, especially the young and elderly, who are susceptible to asthma, emphysema and other lung diseases exacerbated by ground-level ozone, the main component of smog.

But most of the court’s conservatives, led by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, rejected the EPA’s claim.

“Put simply, EPA’s response did not so much address Plaintiffs’ concerns as circumvent them,” Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.

The agency estimates the plan could remove 70,000 tons of nitrogen oxide, an ozone-depleting pollutant, from the air by the summer of 2026; prevent up to 1,300 premature deaths; and reduce emergency room visits.

The EPA said in a statement that it was disappointed by the decision, but looked forward to defending the “good neighbor” plan in the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals as the trial continues.

While the initiative is on pause, the agency said, “Americans will continue to be exposed to higher levels of ground-level ozone, leading to costly public health consequences that may be particularly harmful to children and the elderly and disproportionately affect people of color, low-income families, and other vulnerable populations.”

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) applauded the decision. “The nation’s power grid is already under stress, and now this administration is attempting to add more regulations that will put even more strain on the grid,” Morrisey said in a statement. “This Supreme Court decision is correct, but EPA will continue to try to legislate and circumvent Congressional authority.”

The case arose from the EPA’s implementation of a section of the Clean Air Act that requires pollution sources in downwind states to reduce their emissions if they affect air quality in the States located downwind. Prevailing winds from west to east can carry pollutants hundreds of kilometers across the country.

This rule has been a source of tension between states in the Midwest and Appalachia, and those on the East Coast, where pollution often ends up. It has also sparked political divisions: Republicans often complain that the rule saddles the industry with costly spending, while Democrats generally applaud the health and environmental benefits.

In 2015, the EPA strengthened air quality standards for ozone pollution, requiring states to submit plans to comply. The EPA found that plans to reduce pollution in most states were inadequate, so the Biden administration announced rules for 23 states in 2023, as required by law. The rules limit emissions from power plants, steel mills, cement plants and other industrial polluters.

In separate litigation, 12 states challenged the EPA’s disapproval of their projects in court and won stays. The plaintiffs in that case took a different route: They challenged the plan in the D.C. Circuit Court, arguing that it was arbitrary and capricious, and requested a stay pending review.

The plaintiffs said it was unclear how the plan would work if 12 states were no longer subject to it and challenged its adequacy on other technical grounds. The D.C. Circuit Court denied the stay, and the petitioners submitted their emergency request to the Supreme Court while the main case proceeds in the lower court.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the request but went further, saying it would also consider whether it was reasonable to do so before a lower court stayed the rule.

Downwind states such as Maryland, New York, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania filed a brief in the case, arguing that pollution seeping into their states from downwind sources has major consequences on the health of their residents. They said it also made it difficult to meet federal air quality guidelines and would force them to implement even stricter controls on their own pollution sources — at great cost — to comply with the rules.

This decision once again demonstrates the skepticism with which the Supreme Court’s conservative majority views federal regulations not specifically approved by Congress, as well as the justices’ willingness to restrict the power of federal agencies. In a separate ruling Thursday, the court struck down the legality of internal courts used by the Securities and Exchange Commission to handle securities fraud cases.

The court has yet to rule on a challenge to the legal precedent known as Chevron deference, whereby courts defer to federal agencies on reasonable interpretations of ambiguous laws. In May, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the federal agencies, ruling that the funding mechanism for the powerful Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was constitutional.

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