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Obama's on a Winning Streak in Drive to Curb Air Pollution

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Recent court rulings in favor of EPA action amount to a huge victory for the current administration and the environmental watchdog.

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The Obama administration has won its third court victory on air pollution regulation in less than a month with a unanimous 3-0 ruling by the US Court of Appeals in favor of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The May 9 ruling that the EPA has the legal authority to enact stricter standards on fine particulate matter, also known as soot, is a defeat for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), which sued EPA for its regulations on soot coming from coal-fired power plants, refineries, and vehicles, arguing that the EPA exceeded its authority.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA can restrict air pollutants based on established science that's shown to protect public health. NAM disputed the science upon which the EPA based its stricter soot limits, but the appeals court dismissed that argument, saying that the "EPA's decision and explanation are at least reasonable." Under the rules, annual limits on particulate emissions tightened from 15 micrograms per cubic meter to 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

Public health and environmental groups have long pressed for firmer action on soot. According to John Walke, director of clean air at the Natural Resources Defense Council, "Tiny soot particles are especially dangerous because they penetrate deep into the heart, lungs, and blood streams, causing respiratory ailments including heart attacks, strokes, asthma attacks, and even premature death. It's probably the most dangerous common form of air pollution that we worry about."

The EPA concludes that although the rule will inflict $53 million to $350 million in annual costs on the industry, it will provide public health benefits of $4 billion to $9.1 billion. Environmental groups cheered the decision, calling it a victory for public health.

In the past month, the US Supreme Court let stand a rule to reduce pollutants responsible for smog and acid rain, and the US Court of Appeals upheld a rule limiting arsenic, mercury, and other toxic emissions from coal plants. Taken together, the multiple rulings in favor of EPA action amount to a huge victory for the Obama administration and appear to grant broad latitude for the environmental watchdog to enact strict limits under existing authority. "The three rulings together create quite the trifecta by significantly furthering the administration's agenda on addressing climate change through the existing Clean Air Act," said Richard Lazarus, an environmental law professor at Harvard Law School.

In the absence of Congressional action on a range of environmental issues, the Obama administration has resorted to using executive authority to achieve its goals. The administration is in an all-out sprint to get the limits in place before Obama's term expires in 2016. As a result, EPA regulations have often ended up in court. But the agency has rolled up victory after victory with many key rules remaining largely intact, demonstrating just how monumentally important the Clean Air Act is for environmental policy.

The US Court of Appeals also ruled in the EPA's favor last year when it upheld federal regulations on sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions, and in 2008 when it upheld the EPA's ozone standard.

As the New York Times recently noted, one provision of the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to regulate pollutants that are found to be harmful to public health, even if not specifically outlined in the law. After the EPA's 2009 "endangerment" finding, the Obama administration feels it has the legal basis from which to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

In June, the White House will release one of the most significant environmental regulations in years: limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants. It has a long road ahead before it might be finalized, but the broad authority affirmed to the EPA by several court decisions bodes well for the White House's strategy.

It's not one most economists endorse, though. Many believe that a carbon tax would be more efficient and straightforward than federal regulations. Ironically, the blanket rejection by industry allies in Congress of the former means they may end up with much more of the latter.

This article was written by Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com.
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