EPA court ruling is win for public

Jun. 26, 2014 @ 03:02 PM

This editorial appeared in The Charlotte Observer

The Supreme Court's decision Monday wisely keeps intact the Environmental Protection Agency's power to regulate carbon emissions. The importance of that power for North Carolina was highlighted in an academic study published also on Monday. The report showed that adherence to state and federal legislation including the Clean Air Act, under which the EPA controls such greenhouse gases, may explain a substantial decline in deaths in this state from respiratory illnesses.

The study's authors did not conclusively credit environmental policies for those crucial health benefits because other potentially influential factors -- such as medical history or allergies -- were not accounted for in the analysis. But the correlations were evident. "This research tends to show that environmental policies work, if the goal of those policies is not only to improve the environment but also to improve public health," said the study's lead author, Dr. H. Kim Lyerly from Duke University.

The high court ruling, of course, focused on the legality of the EPA's actions in regard to the powers it gets from the Clean Air Act. In a 7-2 vote, the justices upheld the EPA's authority to regulate sources of greenhouse gases as long as they would already need permits for emitting conventional pollutants. That means the EPA can issue rules on carbon emissions from large industrial polluters, such as power plants and oil refineries.

In a separate 5-4 decision, the court refused to allow the EPA to expand its reach -- without action of Congress -- to regulate emissions from small businesses and companies. Despite that rejection, Justice Antonin Scalia said the "EPA is getting almost everything it wanted in this case. It sought to regulate sources it said were responsible for 86 percent of all the greenhouse gases... Under our holdings, EPA will be able to regulate sources responsible for 83 percent of those emissions."

That's not just a win for the EPA. It's a win for the environment and public health, as Lyerly's study underscores.

Monday's ruling wasn't related to the Obama administration's recent rules to curb greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants by 2030. But the justices' decision undergirds the EPA's authority to push such regulations.

In the past, North Carolina has worked diligently to keep the state's air clear of pollutants using both the Clean Air Act and the state's 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act. Unfortunately, some N.C. lawmakers seem to be backing away from such diligence.

The N.C. Senate recently passed legislation that would require the removal of up to 80 percent of the air-quality monitoring stations in the state. There are currently 56 sites scattered across the state housing devices to measure pollutants. Thankfully, the House did not follow that lead. Instead, it has sent its own environmental bill to the Senate that does not include a provision to remove monitoring stations.

Both state and federal actions are needed to protect the public and the environment from the damaging effects of these toxic pollutants. The Supreme Court decision keeps the EPA on the job. The N.C. legislature should retain the monitoring stations and stay on the job, too.