Good news is often sweetened when it is served with a dash of surprise — and last week the U.S. Supreme Court delivered both in a ruling upholding the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate smog generated by coal-fired power plants that drifts across state lines to pollute others.
The first part of the surprise was the clear 6-2 majority in the case — this from a court that has shown a distressing tendency to favor monied interests at the expense of average Americans. Coal companies and their anachronistic supporters can only hate this ruling, which will entail expensive remedies if coal is to remain a major energy source.
Although Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were happy to play their typecast roles in dissent, the usual conservative block was fractured, and most notably Chief Justice John Roberts was in the majority (Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito recused himself).
The ruling overturned a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which had struck down the Obama administration’s interpretation of the “Good Neighbor Provision” on grounds that the Clean Air Act had not been properly followed. The case was titled EPA v. EME Homer City Generation, L.P., a coal-fired plant in Indiana County, 45 miles from Pittsburgh.
As it happens, Pennsylvania, a suffering neighbor as a recipient of ill winds that blow us no good, has reason to thank the Supreme Court’s clarity on what the law allows. The majority opinion, written by Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, held that the Clean Air Act’s plain text supports the EPA.
The second pleasant surprise was in seeing the often besieged EPA finally win a decisive victory in any arena. Although the agency was founded when Republican President Richard Nixon was in the White House, today’s Republicans never cease attacking it. With no interest in combating climate change and having branded regulation as the enemy of prosperity, they have introduced dozens of bills to strip the EPA of its powers — never mind the dire, well-documented health consequences of breathing polluted air.
For the EPA to be told that its approach to the Clean Air Act is valid sets it up to do more to clear the nation’s air. It also robs conservatives of one more argument in trying to stop those efforts.