US Supreme Court backs rule to limit coal pollution

Court decision upholds rule to limit cross-state pollution, in major victory for Obama administration

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By Sophie Yeo

The US Supreme Court has upheld EPA legislation to limit air pollution – a major victory for Obama who is leaning on the agency as he seeks to tackle climate change without the help of Congress.  

On Tuesday, the Court ruled that Environmental Protection Agency rule to prevent smog from coal plants wafting across states, proposed in 2011 under the Clean Air Act, was within the law.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her decision that the EPA’s rule, which demands that states be “good neighbors” to one another, were “permissible, workable, and equitable”.

The rule reduces the amount of soot and smog that drifts across the borders of 28 Midwestern and Appalachian states over to the East Coast.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision is a resounding victory for public health and a key component of EPA’s efforts to make sure all Americans have clean air to breathe,” said EPA chief Gina McCarthy in a statement.

‘War on coal’

The ruling is the latest victory in Obama’s attempts to tackle climate change, and in particular to limit the pollution from coal fired power plants.

His efforts have received backlash from Republicans, particularly those from coal-dependent states, who have accused him of waging a ‘war on coal’ at the expense of jobs and affordable energy.

In order to achieve the promised US emissions reductions of 17% reduction on 2005 levels by 2020, Obama pledged to bypass a hostile Congress, instead relying upon the EPA and its Clean Air Act to enact a series of ambitious measures to tackle climate change.

In February this year, Obama announced that he had instructed the EPA to draft a new set of measures to improve fuel efficiency. In March, he announced a plan to slash methane emissions, which have a greater warming effect than carbon dioxide.

“Power plant pollution creates serious health risks for millions of Americans, especially children and the elderly,” said Fred Krupp, president for Environmental Defense Fund, which was a party to the case.

“The Supreme Court’s decision means that our nation can take the necessary steps to ensure healthier and longer lives for the 240 million Americans at risk from power plant smokestack pollution near and far.”


President Obama has also pledged to stop funding new overseas coal-fired power plants, a move which has been echoed in countries include Finland, Norway, Sweden and the UK.

But unlike the US, the UK’s decision to stop the funding contains a legal loophole which means that UK exporters of coal products can still use government money to grow their businesses abroad. This is because UK export finance may not “discriminate between classes or types of exports”.

Speaking in London yesterday, Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna said that Labour would close this loophole if elected next year. Some hope that it could be reflected in the Queen’s Speech this year as she lays out the agenda for Parliament.

“That loophole needs to be closed and we would take action to close it,” said Umunna. “What Obama has done is sensible and hopefully it will be reflected in the Queen’s Speech.”

Joss Garman, Associate Fellow on international climate change at IPPR, said, “The UK should follow President Obama’s lead on this issue and change export finance rules to prohibit taxpayer support for dirty coal stations overseas.

“This would send an important international signal at a time when climate change is swiftly moving back up the global diplomatic agenda.”

Ruth Davis, Greenpeace UK political director, said: “With many people in this country still cleaning up after the winter’s floods, it would be madness for the UK Government to help fund projects overseas that drive dangerous climate change. Vince Cable and Ed Davey should now back this move.”

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