Michigan v. EPA: Still Hope for the Mercury Rule

Robert Verchick

June 29, 2015

Today the Supreme Court blocked a key effort by the Obama administration to keep unsafe levels of mercury and other toxins from spilling into our air. The ruling, issued in Michigan vs. EPA, is a loss for the EPA and public health advocates. But the damage can be contained and will hopefully not prevent the agency from re-issuing its so-called Mercury Rule under a rationale that can satisfy the Court’s newly divined decision-making standards.

At issue was whether the Clean Air Act required the EPA to consider costs to industry when it made the decision to regulate mercury, a known neurotoxin. Because the Act does not mention cost considerations at this early stage of rulemaking, the EPA reasoned such review was unnecessary. At any rate, the EPA had explicitly considered costs in the second stage of analysis when it chose the actual numeric pollution limit. And what it found was that the benefits of the Mercury Rule would exceed the costs by tens of billions of dollars.

Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia found that the EPA’s failure to consider costs in the early stage of the rule doomed the whole enterprise. The EPA’s decision-making process, according to the Court, did not meet the Act’s requirement of considering all “appropriate and necessary” information.

That’s disappointing, but the loss could have been much worse. In the briefing, opponents of the mercury rule argued to require full cost-benefit analysis rather than simply considering costs. Opponents had also argued that EPA should not be able to count all the indirect health benefits (from reductions in accompanying pollutants) that come from mercury limits. Funny those opponents of the rule had no problem counting the indirect costs that come from mercury limits. The Court’s decision did neither of these two things.

And that leaves open the possibility that the Obama Administration can still keep mercury out of our air. If the courts allow the Mercury Rule to stand until EPA is able to revise its analysis, the agency can then insert a consideration of costs at the earlier stage of its examination. That’s only fair.

Regulations to protect Americans from mercury pollution have been in the works for a long time. Rules to regulate mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants and their co-pollutants were first proposed by the EPA under the Bush Administration. The Obama Administration’s efforts to move the mercury rule would result in between 4,200-11,000 fewer premature deaths a year, 4,700 fewer heart attacks and 130,000 fewer asthma attacks, among other public health benefits.

The Court’s decision was narrow enough to preserve the rule and its vital contribution to public health and the environment.

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