The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to weigh a challenge by industry groups and some states to an Obama administration regulation intended to limit emissions of mercury and other hazardous pollutants mainly from coal-fired power plants.
In a blow to the federal government, the justices said in a brief order that they would review an April ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that upheld the rule.
The court order said the justices would focus on the single question of whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “unreasonably refused to consider costs in determining whether it is appropriate to regulate hazardous air pollutants emitted by electric utilities.”
The EPA rule, if left intact, could help spur utility companies to shut down some coal-fired plants due to the costs of compliance. The EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) applies to 1,400 of the country’s largest power plants and would come into force in 2015, or in some cases 2016.
The EPA has said MATS could annually prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths. The agency also said MATS could generate billions of dollars in benefits including a reduction in mercury poisoning, which most commonly occurs when contaminated fish are eaten. Mercury poisoning can lead to developmental delays and abnormalities in children.
The 2012 regulation – which also targets oil-fired plants, although these are less common – was challenged by industry groups and some states. They said it was too stringent, while some environmental groups said the rule did not go far enough.
The challengers, including the National Mining Association and the state of Michigan, say the rule should have taken into account the costs it imposes on companies.
In April, the three-judge appeals panel was split, with Judge Brett Kavanaugh writing a dissenting opinion criticizing the EPA for not considering what he said was the estimated $9.6 billion-a-year cost of the regulation.
“To be sure, EPA could conclude that the benefits outweigh the costs. But the problem here is that EPA did not even consider the costs,” Kavanaugh wrote.
A ruling is due by the end of June.
The three consolidated cases are Michigan v. EPA, 14-46, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, 14-47, National Mining Association v. EPA, 14-49.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)