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Supreme Court rules EPA must consider costs before regulating mercury emissions

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The Supreme Court ruled today that the Environmental Protection Agency cannot call for a cap on mercury emissions from power plant companies, without considering the costs placed on the industry.

In 2012, the EPA adopted the first-ever regulations limiting the amount of mercury and other toxic pollutants emitted by power plants. A major part of President Obama’s environmental agenda, the changes were meant to curb a leading source of these harmful neurotoxins, which can have detrimental health effects on children and unborn babies.

However, the EPA estimated that the regulations wouldn’t come cheap. The new guidelines required companies to install scrubbers that would take pollutants out of the air, a move that would cost the industry around $9.6 billion per year. The regulations started taking effect in April, but 21 states and industry groups challenged the changes, arguing that the EPA overstepped its authority when it approved such expensive emission limits.

Mercury emissions can have detrimental health effects on children and unborn babies

"I would think it’s classic arbitrary and capricious agency action for an agency to command something that is outrageously expensive and in which the expense vastly exceeds whatever public benefit can be achieved," said Justice Antonin Scalia.

Due to this backlash, the Supreme Court has been debating a clause of the Clean Air Act that gives the EPA authority to limit emissions of air pollutants as long as the regulation "is appropriate and necessary." The clause does not specify that costs be considered, and the agency said it only thought about the expense after the new standards had been decided. US Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. defended the regulations in high court, arguing it is "certainly appropriate for EPA to list power plants for regulation based solely on health and environmental hazards."