The Supreme Court’s New Pollution Ruling: Everything You Need To Know

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As you’ve no doubt heard on the news, the Supreme Court today declined to hear an appeal from 20 states over an EPA regulation. What’s probably not clear is what regulation they refused to rule on, and why it’s important. Here’s what you need to know.

What Did They Rule On?

At issue is the EPA’s long-in-development regulations on mercury and other airborne toxins from coal-fired power plants, the Mercury and Air Toxins Standard, or MATS. Burning coal gives off a whole host of pollutants, most notably mercury, but also arsenic, sulfur dioxide and others. In fact, burning coal accounts for half of these.

Mercury in particular is a nasty customer. It can easily enter the food chain through fish supplies, and causes nerve damages, seizures, birth defects and even death. MATS is designed to severely cut back the amount of this stuff released in the atmosphere, but, of course, to do this will require retrofitting coal-powered plants. It’s estimated this will cost the coal and oil plants roughly $9 billlion, something the EPA has argued is offset by the estimated $37 billion in savings from fewer sick days, less pollution, and people not dying as soon from inhaling mercury.

The coal industry sued, saying that upgrading was going to cost a lot more than EPA estimates and that needed to be factored into the EPA’s regulations. The Supreme Court agreed, and sent the EPA back to debate with the lower courts how it should determine the overall cost of conversion. However, the rule would stay in place while the EPA figured this out. The states wanted the rule thrown out altogether, so they asked the Supreme Court to shut it down. The court declined, so, on a practical level, MATS is de facto the law, and it seems unlikely to be going anywhere.

How Does This Affect Me?

The EPA has estimated that the overall cost might hike bills roughly as high as 3 percent, but anybody panicking on Facebook should look more closely at the dates. The EPA made MATS a regulation in 2012, and as the appeal wound through the courts, most power companies simply complied with the law rather than risk violating it and getting fined, back in 2014. So if this was going to whack your power bill, it’s likely already done so, and you didn’t notice.

The larger question, and one that will be debated for a while, is whether the EPA should care how much it costs to comply with regulations. The Supreme Court has told it in no uncertain terms that it has to be considered, but environmentalists argue that human life and the environment outweighs profits, while those in favor of less regulation point out that shutting down power plants would leave towns scrambling for alternate sources of power. A lot will depend on how the EPA calculates these costs and what the lower courts decide is an acceptable model. But in the end, that’s little more than a formality. MATS is the law of the land.