Supreme Court Upholds Clean Air Act Standards

February 28, 2001

Michael Johnsen

The Supreme Court unanimously rejected industry arguments that federal officials must balance costs of regulations against the benefits of clean air Tuesday, February 27, 2001. The ruling states the law does not require the government to consider the financial cost of reducing emissions when it sets air quality standards.

Interestingly, all nine justices agreed on the result of the ruling, although sometimes for different reasons. The justices ruled against industry arguments that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) overstepped their legislative authority when it set tougher standards for ozone and soot in 1997, but found the EPA misinterpreted a section of the Clean Air Act (CAA) in implementing new ozone rules.

The CAA "unambiguously bars cost considerations" from the process of setting air-quality standards, "and thus ends the matter for us as well as the EPA," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court. The federal law, "which ... we interpret as requiring the EPA to set air quality standards at the level that is 'requisite' - that is, not lower or higher than is necessary - to protect the public health with an adequate margin of safety, fits comfortably within the scope of discretion permitted by our precedent," Scalia wrote.

The ruling was called a "victory...for the health of the American people" by John R. Garrison of the American Lung Association and a disappointment by Edward W. Warren, the lawyer for industry groups that challenged the law. Warren noted that the industry groups can still challenge the new standards for ozone and soot in a lower court under traditional legal rules.

The Clean Air Act, enacted in 1970, is the nation's premier environmental law, and the industry challenge was viewed by some as the most significant environmental case in years. The Clinton administration had told the justices the dispute had profound implications for Americans' health.

The law requires the EPA to set national air-quality standards to "protect the public health." The agency is to use criteria that "accurately reflect the latest scientific knowledge" for identifying pollution's effects on health. Business groups have long contested that EPA set standards without a clear goal of what "clean" was defined as, and without considering the financial burdens of complying with the standards.

The Clinton administration argued that the nation's air is cleaner than when the Clean Air Act was adopted. Government lawyers said the EPA considers compliance costs in deciding how states will try to meet the clean-air standards, and the law is intended to drive the creation of new technology for doing so.

A federal appeals court had ruled in favor of the industry that the EPA went too far in adopting new standards in 1997 to reduce smog and soot. The court said the government interpreted the federal law so loosely that it overstepped its legislative authority.

However, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected industry's argument that the government must weigh financial costs against health benefits. It relied on a 1980 appeals court ruling that barred the EPA from considering costs when it set air-quality standards. The Supreme Court decided the appeals court was correct in ruling the EPA could not consider costs in setting air-quality standards, but incorrect in saying the agency overstepped its authority.

In regards to the ozone issue [surface level, not stratospheric], the nine justices ruled against the EPA's implementation of revised ozone standards in areas whose ozone levels exceed the maximum allowable amount. "We therefore find the EPA's implementation policy to be unlawful," Scalia wrote. "It is left to the EPA to develop a reasonable interpretation" of the ozone standards.

The 1997 air standards limited ozone, a major component of smog and responsible for damaging health effects, to 0.08 parts per million instead of .12 parts per million under the old requirement. States also were required to limit soot from power plants, cars and other sources to 2.5 microns. Small particulate matter can lodge itself into smaller airways in the lungs and increase respiratory diseases.

The industry groups that brought what is considered to be the largest challenge to the Clean Air Act since it was enacted 30 years ago included the American Trucking Associations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and three states - Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia. A friend-of-the-court brief supporting the clean-air rules was filed by New York, California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont.

The cases are Whitman v. American Trucking Associations, 99-1257, and American Trucking Associations v. Whitman, 99-1426. And can be accessed at the Supreme Court's website HERE....