Citizens of the US, breathe easier. The Supreme Court has ruled that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can regulate air pollution that drifts across state lines. The ruling means about 1000 power plants will be forced to reduce their emissions.
The states hit hardest by the rules include Texas and Ohio, where coal-fired power plants are still big business. But small states in the east like Connecticut, where 93 per cent of air pollution comes from out of state, will benefit.
The EPA tried to impose the regulations in 2011, but energy firms and polluting states sued to block the move. A 2011 impact-analysis report by the EPA argued that the regulations would save at least $110 billion in social benefits like health and visibility, while costing just $0.8 billion to implement.
“All of the air pollution control regulations turn out to be very cost effective,” says Jason West at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In 2005, particulate matter in the atmosphere over the US was responsible for between 130,000 and 320,000 premature deaths, while ozone accounted for another 4700 deaths, according to the EPA analysis. If the regulations had gone into effect in 2011 as planned, the EPA estimates that by 2014, between 13,000 and 34,000 deaths would have been prevented. “There’s a big benefit associated with saving those lives that would otherwise be lost,” says West.
And now, the climate
Next the EPA will propose new controls on greenhouse gases, probably in June. But the case for that is less clear-cut because their effects are indirect, West says.
The EPA’s authority to regulate emissions comes from the 1990 Clean Air Act, which mandates it to regulate pollutants that affect human health and welfare within the US. “For air pollutants, we’re emitting something that then somebody breathes in: that’s a pretty direct effect,” says West.
By contrast, greenhouse gases first heat up the planet, and this then has knock-on effects on things like extreme weather, food supply and air quality – which in turn affect humans. “It’s a less direct linkage with the things the EPA has the ability to control,” says West. That means the EPA will have a harder time convincing the courts it should regulate greenhouse gases.