Michigan Officials Spilt on Mercury Regulation Challenge

Published July 18, 2016

Two of Michigan’s top elected officials have split over whether to continue a three year old legal battle challenging an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mercury and air toxics rule (MATS) requiring stricter pollution controls for coal-fired power plants. Attorney General Bill Schuette is continuing to wage a court battle over EPA’s rule, while Gov. Rick Snyder, has decided to withdraw from the lawsuit. 

With Schutte representing the state of Michigan in the lead, 23 states and numerous industries and groups waged a three-year legal battle with EPA to block implementation of MATS with limited success. The states challenged EPA’s decision to achieve $4 million to $6 million in health benefits with the rule at a cost of $9.6 billion, arguing it was unreasonable. In June 2015, the U.S. Supreme court agreed with the states ruling the EPA unreasonably interpreted the Clean Air Act when it set limits on the emission of toxic pollutants from power plants without first considering the costs of doing so. 

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority in the decision to halt MATS, stated, “EPA strayed well beyond the bounds of reasonable interpretation in concluding that cost is not a factor relevant to the appropriateness of regulating power plants.” 

Varied Effects

For a couple of reasons, the Supreme Court’s ruling had limited effect. First, because it took so long to come to a final ruling, many states and utilities had already begun complying with the rule, shutting down power plants prematurely or, where economically feasible, adding pollution control devices. Second, in January 2016, EPA decided to go forward with the rule, saying the benefits outweighed the costs, despite providing no comprehensive economic analysis in response to the Supreme Court’s state concerns in halting the rule. It is the EPA’s decision to uphold the rule, Michigan and 20 other states are challenging. 

While the impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling had limited effect on MATS, it did figure into the Supreme Courts unprecedented decision to stay the Obama Administration’s clean power plan (CPP) that, at high costs, intended to limit carbon dioxide emissions from coal fired power plants. On February 9, the Supreme Court put the CPP on hold until the court determines the rule’s constitutionality and reasonableness. The 27 states and dozens of business, labor, consumer, and public-interest groups who challenged the CPP cited the harmful economic impact MATS had on the power industry before the Supreme Court struck it down. The petitioners used the significant problems caused by MATS as evidence for why CPP should not be implemented until courts have had a chance to fully review its legality. 

State of Michigan Withdraws

Citing the fact the lawsuit is costly and Michigan utilities have already upgraded or closed their power plants to comply with the rules, Snyder took his name off the latest lawsuit on June 29, meaning Schuette is no longer suing on behalf of the State of Michigan, but just on behalf of the “People of Michigan.”

“We disassociated with that,” Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said. 

Despite Snyder’s action, Schutte is moving forward with the legal challenge to MATS with the support of attorney’s general from 14 other states, including Ohio and Wisconsin. Their lawsuit challenges the way President Barack Obama’s EPA went around Congress to push the emissions restrictions onto states.

“This is a constitutional issue about does the administration have follow the Constitution or do you do things and bypass the Constitution with the issuance of rules and regulations,” Schuette, old the Detroit News. “That’s what this is about. I think the Constitution is important. I’m not going to apologize for it.

“It’s all about the Constitution. … It’s about the separation of powers, the responsibilities of Congress and that … rules and regulations cannot be done with an end run around Congress,” said the Detroit News reports Schute as saying.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.