Supreme Court Sides With EPA, Bars Coal Industry Petition For Unlimited Mercury Emissions

Conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts did a surprising thing today: he defended the Environmental Protection Agency and unilaterally struck down a request by the U.S. coal industry that would have allowed coal-fired power plants to temporarily un-cap emissions. Twenty U.S. states backed the coal industry petition to allow for unlimited amounts of mercury, chromium, arsenic, and other toxic heavy metals to be pumped into the environment.

The Supreme Court was petitioned by the attorneys general from 20 U.S. states, including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming, to temporarily suspend the EPA rule that limits the amount of toxic, carcinogenic, and deadly chemicals that coal-fired power plants emit into the air, reports the Detroit News.

The Supreme Court heard the petition after the rule came under fire by the aforementioned states for placing “unfair” restrictions on the coal industry. The Washington D.C. Circuit Court is currently hearing the case against the EPA rule. The Supreme Court heard it previously, but the aforementioned states say the coal industry can’t wait – they need to release those deadly chemicals into the atmosphere. Residents of those states are seemingly less important than the potential profits that are lost by scaling back the release of the mercury, chromium, and arsenic.

While waiting for the DC Circuit Court to rule on the case, these 20 states petitioned the Supreme Court to put a hold on the rule while the lower court decides the case. Given that it’s not a formal hearing or an actual lawsuit that is before the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts had sole discretion to hear or not hear the petition. And he elected not to hear it, kicking it back down to the lower court, where the case is currently being tried.

The EPA rule did come before the Supreme Court, and the Court ruled that the EPA had not adequately considered the effect that the rule might have on the coal industry. As a result. the Supreme Court ruled that the case could be heard at the lower Washington D.C. Circuit Court.

“Unless this court stays or enjoins further operation of the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule, this court’s recent decision in Michigan v. EPA will be thwarted, a stay or injunction is appropriate because this court has already held that the finding on which the rule rests, is unlawful and beyond EPA’s statutory authority,” the states argued.

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts was having none of it. Ruling unilaterally, he declined to hear the petition, despite being one of the most conservative justices on the Supreme Court. Think Progress speculates that the decision is likely due to procedural issues, rather than any personal beliefs that Chief Justice Roberts might hold about the case. If the Supreme Court heard the case with an empty seat on the bench, the case would have ended up a 4-4 split along liberal-conservative lines, and the petition would have been declined anyway. Roberts just saved the Supreme Court a little time that could be spent on other, more important cases.

It’s worth noting, however, that the EPA rule is one of the most expensive it’s ever passed, costing the coal industry an estimated $9.6 billion a year, which is why the coal industry is pursuing an immediate Supreme Court suspension of the rule. Also worth noting, coal and oil-fired power plants are the largest industrial sources of toxic air pollution in the United States and are responsible for around 50 percent of all mercury emissions in the country.

Since the Supreme Court denied the request, the DC Circuit Court will continue to hear the case and is expected to review an amended “Mercury and Air Toxics Rule” submitted by the EPA sometime in April.

[Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]