A U.S. Supreme Court ruling against federal efforts to limit mercury and other toxic emissions at coal plants won’t have much direct effect in North Carolina, but the state’s environment secretary argues it should impact the thinking on another, upcoming federal rule to limit carbon emissions.
In one of the most sweeping rules it has ever proposed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants states to lower carbon emissions from power plants on average 30 percent below where they were in 2005. North Carolina’s official position is opposed.
“North Carolina does not need this rule,” says state Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources Donald van der Vaart. He says North Carolina can hit the goal without the rule.
“We’re there, we’re going to be there. We’ve already made a 20 percent reduction,” van der Vaart says. “This, in our mind, is a question of do we want the federal government to tell us how to get there or do you want the states to do it, when in fact the law itself is legally infirm?”
Van der Vaart says Monday’s Supreme Court decision shows how the EPA can get it wrong. The judges ruled 5-4 that the agency had improperly devised new mercury emissions limits, but utilities across the U.S. have already spent billions to comply with them.
While the EPA has yet to finalize the carbon rule, power companies and some states are already challenging it as an overreach by the Obama administration. So, van der Vaart wants the EPA to include a “legal trigger,” meaning the rule would have to survive in court before taking effect.
“We just feel that it’s best not to expend a lot of money, and a lot of resources, and a lot of ratepayers dollars before we suss that out,” says van der Vaart.
“There’s already a remedy for that,” says Victor Flatt, who directs UNC’s Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation, and Resources. A judge can grant an injunction to stop a rule, if those suing can show cause.
“If they really think they’re in the right and can prove that moving forward with the plan would actually cause harm or actually raise rates, which I think is not clear, then they need to prove that to a court,” says Flatt. “That’s how our system works.”
Flatt says he thinks the argument is overblown. Even in cases like Monday’s mercury decision where a court finds against the EPA, it rarely actually strike the entire rule down.