Yesterday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to uphold the EPA’s nonsensical Mercury Air Toxics Standards (MATS) Rule. The MATS Rule requires electric utilities to install maximum achievable control technology (MACT) to reduce emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) from coal-fired power plants.
The rule is nonsensical because, as explained below, although one of the most expensive regulations in history (officially estimated at $9.6 billion in 2016), its health benefits are illusory. Moreover, the Rule is a de-facto ban on the construction of new coal electric generation, a policy Congress has never approved. Indeed, even when the Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, a bill embodying the MATS Rule’s regulatory requirements would have been dead on arrival.
In the case, titled White Stallion Energy Center LLC et al. v. EPA et al., Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote a powerful dissenting opinion, as my colleague William Yeatman noted yesterday. Kavanaugh agreed with industry petitioners that EPA unreasonably excluded cost considerations (economic impacts) when determining whether MACT regulation of power plant HAPs is “appropriate and necessary.”
The two-judge majority partly based their opinion on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Whitman v. American Trucking Ass’ns (2001) that EPA may not take costs into consideration when setting national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS).
Kavanaugh argues the majority ‘misreads’ or ‘over-reads’ Whitman by ignoring a key difference between the Clean Air Act provisions governing NAAQS rulemakings – §108(a) and §109(b) – and the provision addressing potential MACT regulation of power plant HAPs – §112(n)(1)(A).
The NAAQS provisions clearly allow no room for cost considerations. If an air pollutant is emitted by numerous or diverse mobile or stationary sources and the associated air pollution is reasonably anticipated to endanger public health or welfare, then, pursuant to §108(a), EPA must establish NAAQS for those pollutants, and, pursuant to §109(b), the standards must be requisite to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety. Period. End of story.
In contrast, §112(n)(1)(A) requires EPA to study and issue a report on the public health hazards anticipated to occur as a result of power plant HAP emissions, and then apply MACT regulation “if” the Administrator “finds such regulation is appropriate and necessary.” The provision does not define the terms “appropriate” and “necessary.” Common sense suggests that a regulation is “appropriate” if the benefits justify the costs.
Perhaps more importantly, §112 tasks EPA to determine whether MACT regulation of HAPs is “appropriate and necessary” only for “electric steam generating units.” For HAPs from all other source categories, EPA has no discretion and is simply required to promulgate MACT regulations. The statute thus seems to contemplate that, in the special case of coal power plants, MACT regulation may not be appropriate even if the associated HAP emissions pose public health hazards. In other words, a less stringent form of Clean Air Act regulation (such as new source performance standards) or state-level regulation might be “appropriate.”
Yeatman opines that Kavanaugh’s dissent may persuade the Supreme Court to review the case. If so, the Court might rule that EPA is allowed or even required to consider costs when determining what is “appropriate” when regulating HAP emissions from power plants. That, in turn, could set the stage for litigation on whether the MATS Rule is too costly to be “appropriate” within the meaning of the statute.
Of course, EPA contends the MATS Rule is a bargain at almost any price, delivering $33 billion to $89 billion in annual health benefits. Litigation reviving public debate on such claims could be a great teaching moment.