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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Supreme Court Win #2: Power Plants must upgrade pollution controls when making other mods

From Environment News Service:

The U.S. Supreme Court today unanimously upheld a federal program designed to clean up the nation's oldest coal-fired power plants, vacating a lower court ruling that has derailed major air pollution enforcement efforts against Duke Energy and other utilities.

The court rejected a ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that found Duke Energy did not violate provisions of the Clean Air Act when it upgraded eight coal-fired power plants in North and South Carolina during the late 1980s and 1990s.

The Supreme Court ruled that the lower court's interpretation of the law was "too far a stretch" and ordered the court to reconsider its decision.

Environmentalists praised the ruling and said it is a major victory in a broader effort, launched by the Clinton administration, to clean up older coal-fired power plants.

"The decision is going to reverberate throughout the electric utility industry and have a major impact on the air quality in dozens of states," said NRDC attorney John Walke. "It also puts the final nail in the coffin of the Bush administration's ceaseless six-year effort to monkey-wrench the federal laws requiring power companies to bring half-century-old plants up to safe environmental standards."

The case was originally brought against Duke Energy by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2000 and illustrates the confusion with federal rules that aim to clean up older power plants.

Note that the case was brought in 2000 - I wonder if EPA would have initiated this case after 2001, or at any rate after Christine Todd Whitman threw in the towel?

Update: I meant to add Marcia Coyle's remarks to Ray Suarez on this, which sum it up nicely:

MARCIA COYLE: This was, again, the interpretation of the Clean Air Act. EPA this time had sued Duke Energy and a number of utilities that made modifications to very old and deteriorating coal-burning power plants back in the 1980s.

EPA claimed they had violated the Clean Air Act by not getting permits. The modifications that the utilities made allowed these plants to operate for more hours and increased the annual pollution, so they needed the permits.

The lower court had agreed with the utility that the utility's interpretation of what a modification is under the Clean Air Act did not require a permit here, basically. The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed with the lower court's analysis of the Clean Air Act.

This was a very high-stakes case for both sides. Environmentalists feared, if EPA's interpretation of "modification" failed, that these utilities would be able to continue to run these aging plants that would continue to pollute areas that had now come within air quality standards.

The utilities feared that, if their interpretation failed, they will be facing very costly implementations of modern pollution-control technology. Electricity prices would go up.

I don't know about you all, but I'm okay with electricity prices ticking up a little, if it means my air will be cleaner. Of course I realize that equation may not work for everyone, but for many people, the reduced health care expenses (asthma and so forth) could very well offset or more than offset any energy cost increase. And for those that it doesn't ... well, let's re-allocate some of those Iraq War expenditures to our social safety net at home, why don't we?

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