Scalia, writing for the Court, stated that “[EPA] gave cost no thought at all, because it considered cost irrelevant to its initial decision to regulate,” he continued, writing, “It is unreasonable to read an instruction to an administrative agency to determine whether ‘regulation is appropriate and necessary’ as an invitation to ignore cost.” With that the Court found the Obama Administration’s most monumental environmental regulation to date unreasonable and remanded to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The regulation in question was the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). MATS required coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of mercury, arsenic, and lead by installing control technologies or retiring plants. The rule was finalized in December 2012. While reducing the amount of hazardous emissions may seem admirable, the direct benefits of the regulation were valued at $4 million to $6 million, while the annual cost to industry would be approximately $9.6 billion. EPA contested the direct benefit of the program saying that, fully implemented, the MATS would yield between $37 billion and $90 billion in health benefits. EPA did not contest the cost of the program.
Opponents of the rule argued that the costs imposed on business and society versus the limited benefits were unreasonable and that the practical implication of the MATS standard would be to put many coal-burning plants out of business. Environmentalists, and the EPA, have pointed out the health benefits to the program which they argue would protect vulnerable populations like pregnant women.
The practical effects this ruling may be limited. Because the rule has been implemented for two years just under 70% of coal burning power plants are already in compliance with the regulation. Furthermore, SCOTUS did not vacate the rule, only remanded it, therefore MATS will stay in effect while the D.C. Circuit reconsiders the case.
Furthermore, initial discussions make it seem unlikely that this case will have a broader effect on other EPA regulations. Some legal commentators contend that Justice Scalia cabined his analysis within the confines of the MATS program. As evidence of this, Justice Scalia took several pages drawing distinctions between the National Ambient Air Quality Standard, EPA’s largest Clean Air regulatory regime, and MATS making it unlikely that the rationale from this ruling can easily be applied more broadly throughout the Clean Air Act. Only time will tell if these preliminary analyses correct.
To read the opinion click here.