Supreme Court upholds major EPA air-pollution rule

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The Supreme Court upheld a major Environmental Protection Agency air pollution rule Tuesday, reversing a 2012 Appeals Court decision that represented one of the few blemishes on the agency's judicial record.

The revival of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, or CSAPR, serves as a victory for the Obama administration's environmental agenda. The rule requires upwind states in the eastern half of the country -- largely those in the Midwest -- to better contain air pollution from power plants.

It's one of two key Obama EPA air pollution rules to win legal challenges in recent weeks. The 6-2 ruling comes two weeks after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a rule to reduce mercury and air toxics pollution at some of the nation's dirtiest coal- and oil-fired power plants.

The Supreme Court rejected the lower court's argument that the EPA used too broad a definition of the Clean Air Act's "Good Neighbor" provision to require better pollution control in those upwind states.

"EPA's cost-effective allocation of emission reductions among upwind states, we hold, is a permissible, workable and equitable interpretation of the Good Neighbor Provision," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, and Justice Samuel Alito recused himself from the case.

Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states had argued the rule was necessary because they had done as much as they could to reduce air pollution within their own states, but still were affected by pollutants blowing in from other states.

Environmental organizations, public heath groups and Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states cheered the decision.

"Today’s ruling is a resounding victory for public health, especially for people living downwind from coal-fired power plants in other states," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said. "For too long, these communities have shouldered an unfair burden on their health and wellbeing without the ability to protect themselves and their families from dangerous pollution."

The EPA says CSAPR will prevent 34,000 premature deaths once it's fully implemented, largely by reducing pollution linked to cardiovascular and respiratory ailments.

"Today's Supreme Court decision is a resounding victory for public health and a key component of EPA's efforts to make sure all Americans have clean air to breathe. It serves to support the ongoing work to see that air quality in downwind states continues to improve," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said.

Industry groups and upwind states had challenged the EPA's methodology, saying it inadequately traced pollutants back to their sources. They worried that could impose greater-than-warranted costs on some states.

The Supreme Court, however, said the EPA isn't required to denote each state's contributions to air pollution.

"[T]he Good Neighbor Provi­sion does not require EPA to disregard costs and consider exclusively each upwind state’s physically proportionate responsibility for each downwind air quality problem," Ginsburg wrote.

Scott Segal, director of electric utility group the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council and a partner at Bracewell & Giuliani, said the ruling harms the "cooperative federalism" the EPA is relying upon to implement a suite of regulations, including carbon emissions rules for new and existing power plants.

"As we stand at the precipice of new carbon regulations, we are concerned that EPA may be emboldened to take actions that undermine cooperation with the states," Segal said.

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