Supreme Court to Review EPA's Mercury Standard

The top court's decision on Tuesday to review the first-ever regulation of mercury is a setback for Obama's environmental agenda, in part because it has implications for other EPA initiatives including Wednesday's proposal to tighten the ozone rule.

3 minute read

November 27, 2014, 7:00 AM PST

By Irvin Dawid

"The high court accepted several challenges to the rules [requiring power plants to reduce mercury emissions and other toxic air pollutants] brought by the utility industry and a coalition of nearly two dozen states, including those where utilities rely on coal for most power generation," writes Amy Harder who reports on energy policy for The Wall Street Journal and her co-worker, legal affairs reporter Brent Kendall who covers the Supreme Court.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s mercury rule, adopted in 2012 and scheduled to take effect in April for existing power plants, requires coal and oil-fired plants to cut most of their emissions of mercury, a neurotoxin the EPA says is particularly harmful for children, unborn babies and women of childbearing age.

In the accompanying video, Harder is asked all the key questions by The Wall Street Journal interviewer. She makes clear that the suit really comes down to costs and time. Utilities, at the least, would like more time to comply with the rules. She indicates that analysts indicate it would be unlikely the rules would be rejected entirely.

The high court will decide if the EPA should have considered how much the rules would cost utilities, addressing a recurring complaint by companies about government regulations. The power companies and states said the rules would add $9.6 billion in annual costs to the utility industry. The EPA should have taken those costs into account, they said.

On the other hand, of course, are the benefits which "EPA has said "amount to between $37 billion and $90 billion a year, far outweighing any industry costs. The agency also has said it believes the rule could prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths each year."

In a related air quality issue, Amy Harder reports on tighter ozone standards that EPA proposed the day after the Supreme Court announced their intention to review the mercury rule. Unlike the latter, Harder indicates that "(t)he part of the Clean Air Act that the EPA uses to issue ozone limits specifically says the agency only can consider science, not cost, a standard supported unanimously by the Supreme Court in 2001."

Under EPA's proposal, "(t)he current level, established in 2008 by the George W. Bush administration, set at 75 parts per billion...would be reduced to between 65 and 70 parts per billion of ozone in the air", writes Harder.

"The agency estimates that the economic benefits of the rule – measured in avoided asthma attacks, heart attacks, missed school and work days and premature deaths – would significantly outweigh the costs," writes Coral Davenport, climate and energy reporter for The New York Times. "It calculates the benefits at $6.4 billion to $13 billion annually in 2025 for a standard of 70 parts per billion and $19 billion to $38 billion annually in 2025 for a standard of 65 parts per billion.

EPA estimates the costs to industry "would be $3.9 billion in 2025, using a standard of 70 parts per billion," writes Davenport.

To the disappointment of the environmental and public health community and relief of business and industry, President Obama directed then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to drop a regulation that would have tightened the standard three years ago 2011, as we noted on September 3, 2011.

Correspondent's note: Full access to all Wall Street Journal articles will be available to non-subscribers for up to seven days after Nov. 26.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014 in The Wall Street Journal

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