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Supreme Court appears divided over EPA limits on mercury emissions from power plants

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the Supreme Court’s conservative justices cast doubt Wednesday on the Obama Administration’s regulations to reduce power plant emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants.

The court appeared to be divided over a challenge brought by industry groups and 21 states to the EPA’s decision to take action against coal- and oil-fired power plants.

Several justices questioned whether EPA was required to take costs into account when it first decided to regulate hazardous air pollutants from power plants, or whether health risks are the only consideration under the Clean Air Act. The EPA said it factored in costs at a later stage when it wrote standards that are expected to reduce the toxic emissions by 90 percent. The rules begin to take effect next month and are supposed to be fully in place in 2016.

The AP said that Justice Antonin Scalia was critical of the agency’s reading of the provisions of the anti-air pollution law at issue in the case throughout 90 minutes of arguments. “It’s a silly way to read them,” Scalia said.

The court’s four liberal justices appeared more comfortable with EPA’s position, leaving Justice Anthony Kennedy as the possible decisive vote.  Kennedy at one point said the law appeared to give EPA the leeway to regulate pollutants based only on their harm. But he later said that once a decision to regulate is made without consideration of cost, “at that point the game is over.”

The administration and its allies told the justices that EPA followed the same process in deciding whether to regulate other sources of emissions, including from motor vehicles, which in the case of a loss on this court decision, could yield other lawsuits on other regulations.

The administration is seeking to use the Clean Air Act for the first time to control mercury and carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants.  Numerous states have already filed challenges to a proposed rule to curb pollution from coal-burning plants. And Congress is working on legislation to allow states to opt out of any rules clamping down on greenhouse gases.

The costs of installing and operating equipment to remove the pollutants before they are dispersed into the air are hefty — $9.6 billion a year, the EPA found.  But the agency said the benefits are much greater, amounting to between $37-$90 billion annually, with savings coming from prevention of up to 11,000 deaths, 4,700 nonfatal heart attacks and 540,000 lost days of work.

Shuttering older plants or installing pollution-control equipment also will reduce emissions of particulate matter, such as dust, dirt and other fragments associated with a variety of respiratory ailments. The administration said it properly took those benefits into account, but the challengers argued that they are not relevant to the case.  Chief Justice John Roberts called the inclusion of those other benefits an “end run” around more stringent procedures EPA would have to follow to try to reduce emissions of particulate matter.