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Supreme Court Upholds EPA Ruling That Will Likely Shut Down Critical Coal Plants

coal plant

The U.S. Supreme Court bolstered the Obama administration's environmental agenda, upholding a rule designed to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants in 28 states.

The justices voted 6-2 to overturn a lower court decision on regulation that targets air pollution that crosses state lines; the court said the rule was within the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority under the Clean Air Act.

coal plant Several coal-fire plants will likely close due to the EPA regulations (Image source: Shutterstock).

The decision upheld a 2011 Environmental Protection Agency move to limit emissions from plants in more than two-dozen Midwestern and Southern states. The the agency says pollution drifts into the air above states along the East Coast, and the EPA has long struggled to devise a way to control it.

Attorneys general from 14 states, led by Texas, challenged the rule alongside Energy Future Holdings Corp.’s Luminant, Entergy Corp., Edison International, Peabody Energy Corp., AEP, Southern and the United Mine Workers of America. In 2012, a federal appeals court in Washington agreed with the utilities.

The States argued, and the lower court agreed, that they deserved a chance to figure out how much they were contributing to pollution in other states and how to reduce it before the EPA prescribed fixes. The lower court also faulted EPA for requiring states to reduce pollution through a complex formula based on cost that did not exactly match how much downwind pollution a state was responsible for.

But the high court said the EPA was allowed under the Clean Air Act to implement federal plans in states that had not adequately addressed pollution that blows downwind. The court also ruled that the EPA also was authorized to consider how costly controls on pollution are and did not have to require states to reduce exactly the amount of pollution that they contribute to downwind states.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the court's majority opinion, which reversed the lower court ruling. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. Justice Samuel Alito took no part in consideration of the case.

"In short, we are satisfied that EPA's construction of the statute reasonably responded to a perplexing problem the statute itself does not resolve," Ginsburg said.

Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution from power plants can be carried long distances and the pollutants react with other substances to form smog and soot, which have been linked to illnesses. The cross-border pollution has prevented many cities from complying with health-based standards set by law.

The new downwind pollution rule was triggered by a federal court throwing out the previous rule penned by the Bush administration. The new rule would cost power plant operators $800 million annually in 2014, according to EPA estimates. That's in addition to the $1.6 billion spent per year to comply with the 2005 Bush rule that was still in effect until the government drafted the new one.

The EPA said the rule would prevent more than 30,000 premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of illnesses each year. But according to the Dallas Morning News, utilities may have to shutter coal fire plants such as Southern Co. and American Electric Power Co. to shutter coal-fired power plants, as it would require them to install more pollution-control systems.

The winter of 2013-2014 was the longest and coldest the nation has seen in years, and dozens of the coal plants that provided the critical energy to keep families warm last year will be shut down in accordance with the EPA restrictions.

Protesters in Chicago show their support for getting rid of coal, but the coal-fired plants schedule to close due to EPA regulations produced 30 percent of all power generated in America during the coldest winter in decades (Image source: Chicago Reader).

"Over 5 gigawatts of additional coal-fired plant retirements have been announced by owners and operators of the plants since November 2013 mainly to comply with EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards," the Institute for Energy Research reported. "These 5.4 gigawatts of recently announced retirements are above the 40 plus gigawatts ... and likely part of the 60 gigawatts that EIA expects to be retired as part of its Annual Energy Outlook 2014 forecast."

More than 32 mostly coal-fired power plants will close and another 36 plants could also be forced to shut down as a result of new EPA rules regulating air pollution. Governing.com put the map below together; red icons indicate at least one unit will retire; yellow icons denote at least one unit at a power plant is at risk of retirement.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow Elizabeth Kreft (@elizabethakreft) on Twitter.

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