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Science & Environment

Ruling Is A Set-Back To Obama's Clean Air Plan


Think of this next story as a battle over state's rights. A federal court says the United States can only go so far in forcing utilities to cut pollution from power plants. The government was trying to limit the amount of pollution that drifts from utility plants across state lines, leaving other states with unclean air.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: The court blocked that effort by the Obama administration, as NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Lots of air pollution in the Eastern United States is caused by sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides blowing in from power plants in other states. That means states can't clean up their own air without help from their neighbors. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put out a rule that would sharply reduce that state-to-state air pollution. The agency said the rule would save thousands of lives and save billions of dollars in health care costs.

But utilities and their customers would have to spend millions of dollars to get these benefits. Some states and utilities challenged the rule in court. And the federal court in the District of Columbia has now sided with the utilities and states. In a two-to-one vote, the court ruled that the EPA rules might force utilities to cut pollution more than that absolute minimum required to meet clean air standards and that means they might end up spending more money than they have to.

The court also said that states should have a chance to propose their own cleanup strategies before the EPA steps in. One judge offered a blistering 44-page dissent. The EPA has been sent back to the drawing board. It can appeal the ruling, but whatever happens, the air rules that were supposed to be phased in between now and 2014 will, at the very least, be delayed.

Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.