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Supreme Court rules EPA must consider costs when deciding to regulate mercury pollution

Jun 29, 2015

The DeYoung Power Plant in Holland burns coal. The city is switching over to natural gas soon.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the state of Michigan, and many other states and industry groups, in their challenge to emissions rules from the Environmental Protection Agency.

They argued that the EPA should consider the costs and benefits of regulating mercury pollution from power plants.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that can affect developing brains. Coal-burning power plants are the largest man-made source of mercury air pollution in the United States.

The EPA argued that it didn’t need to take costs into account when first deciding to regulate pollution under the Clean Air Act – it said its cost-benefit analyses came later when making the rules to clean up the pollution.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices said the EPA was not reasonable when the federal agency deemed costs to be irrelevant in its initial decision to regulate mercury pollution.

From the Supreme Court’s ruling in Michigan v. EPA:

EPA strayed well beyond the bounds of reasonable interpretation in concluding that cost is not a factor relevant to the appropriateness of regulating power plants.

The decision is a setback to environmentalists and the Obama administration, which has been aggressively trying to clean up power plant emissions.

So what are the costs vs. the benefits of cleaning up mercury pollution?

The decision mentions a cost of $9.6 billion with a benefit of only “$4 to $6 million a year.”

But the benefit appears to be an industry number. More from Adam Liptak of the New York Times:

The two sides had very different understandings of the costs and benefits involved. Industry groups said the government had imposed annual costs of $9.6 billion to achieve about $6 million in benefits. The agency said the costs yielded tens of billions of dollars in benefits.

We’ll have more on this decision later today and on tomorrow’s Environment Report with Rebecca Williams.