WASHINGTON — In a victory for the Obama administration, Chief Justice John Roberts on Thursday refused to block an Environmental Protection Agency regulation limiting emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants from coal-fired power plants.
The decision comes three weeks after the full Supreme Court, in a highly unusual move, blocked another major Obama administration rule that would limit planet-warming greenhouse gas pollution from coal plants.
Opponents of Obama’s environmental policies were buoyed by the high court’s decision to halt the global warming rule, known as the Clean Power Plan, reading it as a sign that the court was willing to halt other regulations while they undergo changes and review. But legal experts said the chief justice’s decision Thursday signaled that they might not be successful in further attempts to halt environmental rules while they are still subject to legal challenges.
“This is a pretty strong way of sending a signal that the fact that the court granted a stay of the Clean Power Plan was highly extraordinary and they don’t want to be inundated with these,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, a lawyer with the firm Bracewell and a deputy administrator of the EPA in the George W. Bush administration. “I think this is Justice Roberts’ effort to say that the Clean Power Plan is an extraordinary situation.”
The order was issued solely by Roberts, who did not refer the question to the full court.
Roberts rejected an application from 20 states that said a federal appeals court in Washington had effectively thwarted their victory in the Supreme Court in June, when the high court ruled that the EPA had failed to take into account the punishing costs its mercury regulation would impose. In that 5-4 decision, Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency, the Supreme Court ruled that the agency had run afoul of the Clean Air Act by deciding to regulate the emissions without first undertaking a cost-benefit analysis to show the regulation to be “appropriate and necessary.”
“It is not rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits,” Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month, wrote in June. “Statutory context supports this reading.”
The decision did not strike down the regulation, but it did require the EPA to take costs into consideration. The question before the Supreme Court now was what should happen in the meantime.
In December, a unanimous three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit allowed the regulation to stay in place while the agency completed its review, noting that the agency “is on track to issue a final finding” by April 15.
In their Supreme Court brief, the states said that blocking the mercury regulation “is even more warranted” than the halt to the climate change plan since the Supreme Court has already decided that the agency had exceeded its authority.
The mercury regulation, the states said, “has imposed literally billions of dollars of compliance costs on utilities.”
But Holmstead and other experts noted that blocking the mercury rule would have had little practical impact, since most electric utilities have already put it into effect. Industry groups estimate that it has already led to the closing of about 100 coal-fired power plants. The EPA has estimated that the rule will impose about $9.6 billion annually in costs to industry as they either clean up or close down coal plants.
Melissa Harrison, a spokeswoman for the EPA, said the administration was “very pleased” with Roberts’ decision.
The Obama administration has put forth nearly half a dozen major rules aimed at cutting coal pollution, and critics, who have called them a “war on coal,” have sought to block them in the courts.
But Thursday’s decision is an indication that Scalia’s death has altered the balance of power on the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court voted 5-4 on the climate change stay, issued Feb. 9, with Scalia in the majority.