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The Climate Post: Supreme Court Reviews EPA's Power Plant Mercury Rule; Decision Due in June

03/27/2015 09:47 am ET | Updated May 27, 2015

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in a challenge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) consideration of cost impacts when developing the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS), which are set to go into effect next month. At issue in the case is whether the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to consider costs in addition to health and environmental impacts when determining whether (not just how) to regulate hazardous air pollutants emitted by power plants.

The MATS rule, finalized in December 2011, requires coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants by installing control technologies. The EPA estimates the rule would cost industry about $9.6 billion a year but have the benefits of cutting coal and oil emissions by 90 percent and generating $37 billion in savings through "co-benefits."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held that it is in the EPA's discretion whether to consider costs when deciding whether it is "appropriate and necessary" to regulate hazardous air pollutants emitted by power plants. During Wednesday's Supreme Court oral argument, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed, asserting that Congress instructed the EPA to use its expertise to decide what was appropriate and did not mandate consideration of costs.

Forbes reports that Justice Antonin Scalia repeatedly attacked the EPA's interpretation. He asserted, "I would think it's classic arbitrary and capricious agency action for an agency to command something that is outrageously expensive and in which the expense vastly exceeds whatever public benefit can be achieved."

The Supreme Court's final decision is expected by the end of June.

Global Warming Imperiling Artic Ice, Slowing Ocean Circulation

This week the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) announced that on Feb. 25 Arctic sea ice appeared to have reached its annual maximum extent, "the lowest in the satellite record," with implications for the Arctic's ecology and economy and for weather patterns in North America, Europe, and Asia. The news, the Belfast Telegraph reported, increases fears that summers in the polar region could be ice-free within 20 or 30 years.

Warming Arctic temperatures triggered by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are accelerating ice melt and increasing the amount open ocean exposed to the sun's rays. Unlike white ice, which reflects those rays, the dark ocean absorbs them, causing further heating and melt.

"[The record low extent] is significant, in that it shows that the Arctic is being seriously impacted by our warming climate," said NSIDC Senior Research Scientist Ted Scambos. "In general, sea ice retreat has proceeded faster than modelling expects in the Arctic, although models are catching up."

The NSIDC announcement comes in the wake of a new study reporting that Arctic sea ice is thinning at a faster rate than researchers previously thought. It shows that the ice in the central Arctic Ocean thinned by 65 percent between 1975 and 2012, from 11.78 feet to 4.1 feet.

Global warming also appears to be slowing ocean circulation, according to a new study in Nature Climate Change. The study reveals a deceleration of the ocean circulation that helps to drive the Gulf Stream off the U.S. East Coast, the consequences of which could be significant extra sea level rise for coastal cities and shifts in U.S. and European weather.

The findings suggest that the slowdown -- the most dramatic in recorded history and well outside the norm -- is probably not part of natural fluctuation.

If the climate relationships identified in the study hold true, increasing melt rates in Greenland "might lead to further weakening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation within a decade or two, and possibly even more permanent shutdown" of key components of it, the scientists warn.

"If the slowdown of the Atlantic overturning continues, the impacts might be substantial," said lead author Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. "Disturbing the circulation will likely have a negative effect on the ocean ecosystem, and thereby fisheries and the associated livelihoods of many people in coastal areas. A slowdown also adds to the regional sea-level rise affecting cities like New York and Boston. Finally, temperature changes in that region can also influence weather systems on both sides of the Atlantic, in North America as well as Europe."

Obama Cuts Fed's Carbon Emissions

In an effort to help meet emissions-reduction goals and spur others to do the same, President Barack Obama ordered the federal government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent compared with 2008 levels in the next decade. Specifically, the executive order calls for agencies to ensure that 25 percent of their total energy consumption is from clean sources, reduce energy use in federal buildings by 2.5 percent each year and decrease per-mile greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent from 2014 levels.

"America once again is going to be leading by example," said Obama. "So we're proving that it is possible to grow our economy robustly while at the same time doing the right thing for our environment and tackling climate change in a serious way."

The move by Obama is part of a broader plan to tackle climate change. He previously pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Daily Caller's Michael Bastasch reports that Obama's latest moves on climate are part of a larger effort to increase political pressure on other countries to follow suit in the months before a global climate treaty will be discussed at an international climate summit in Paris.

"If I can encourage and gain commitments from the Chinese to put forward a serious plan to start curbing their greenhouse gases, and that then allows us to leverage the entire world for the conference that will be taking place later this year in Paris," Obama said.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.