The politically charged dispute pits the Obama administration and environmentalists against mostly Republican-led states with less stringent industrial pollution controls, as well as the electric power industry.
In something of a surprise, most justices sounded as if they were leaning toward restoring the
But the rule has proved difficult to implement. In 2008, an earlier version proposed by the
In urging the high court to reverse that decision, Deputy Solicitor Gen. Malcolm Stewart said the EPA rules were needed "because of widespread noncompliance" by states whose power plants were sending pollution toward the East.
Northeastern states have long complained that despite tough anti-pollution standards imposed on their businesses and drivers, poor air quality continues to be a costly and dangerous problem, largely because of coal-fired power plants in states such as Kentucky and Ohio. Those emissions are carried to the Eastern Seaboard by prevailing winds.
The EPA said its proposed stricter limits on ozone and other air pollutants would save up to 34,000 lives a year, spare hundreds of thousands of people from
Stewart insisted the smokestack limits would "protect the public health and strike a fair balance between the competing interests of upwind and downwind states."
Opponents of the EPA rules said the agency exceeded its authority and should have given states an opportunity to reduce emissions on their own.
Fourteen states, led by Texas, urged the court to throw out the Obama administration rule. The EPA "has written the states out of the Clean Air Act" by imposing a federal rule, said Jonathan Mitchell, the Texas state attorney. He was supported by lawyers from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin.
The EPA had the support of nine states — New York, Illinois, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Vermont — as well as the cities of New York, Chicago, Baltimore and Philadelphia. In a friend-of-the-court brief, their lawyers argued that the stricter limits on smokestack pollution were needed and long overdue.
The court's four liberals appeared to agree with the administration's argument that the EPA was simply trying to enforce the Clean Air Act. The agency is due "substantial deference," Justice
Although the state versus state battle is largely rooted in geography, partisan elements are hard to ignore. Most of the complaining East Coast states are led by Democrats, while the Midwestern and Southern states are Republican-dominated.
Illinois, President Obama's home state, split with its Midwest neighbors to support the EPA rule. New Jersey, meanwhile, led by Republican Gov.
Environmental advocates said they were encouraged by what they heard.
"A majority of the justices seemed to think the design of the cross-state air pollution rule was reasonable," said Vickie Patton, a lawyer for the