A federal appeals court Tuesday struck down Environmental Protection Agency rules regulating power plant air pollution that crosses state lines in a case that affected Oklahoma and 27 other states.
Under the rules, Oklahoma utilities with coal plants were required to limit emissions of nitrogen oxides during summer months. The state fell under a section of the cross-state air pollution rules to help stop the formation of ozone, which can cause breathing difficulties.
Several utilities, including Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co., Public Service Co. of Oklahoma and Western Farmers Electric Coop, fought the rules. They were joined by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.
The EPA said the rules would have environmental and health benefits. Its estimates said the rules could have prevented between 13,000 and 34,000 early deaths and up to 400,000 cases of aggravated asthma each year.
In a 2-1 decision Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia directed the EPA to implement earlier regulations called the clean air interstate rules until it can revise the new rules. The court's majority said the EPA exceeded its regulatory authority in implementing the new rules and didn't give states a chance to weigh in on new emissions limits.
Pruitt and the utilities said the rules on cross-state air pollution could have forced them to install expensive pollution-control equipment.
“This regulation is yet another example of the current EPA administration's activist approach to environmental policy and burdensome overregulation that accomplishes nothing more than harming ratepayers and businesses for the sake of more rule making,” Pruitt said in a statement. “Thankfully, the court agreed with our position and validated our efforts.”
The EPA said it would review the court's decision.
“As the court stated in its opinion, the 2005 rule addressing this issue remains in place, and states and affected sources are expected to follow the law,” the agency said in a statement. “EPA remains committed to working with states and the power sector to address pollution-transport issues as required by the Clean Air Act.”
Oklahoma was not included under the 2005 clean air interstate rules.
Groups, companies react
Environmental groups called the court's decision disappointing. The Sierra Club said it would urge the EPA to appeal the ruling.
Jenna Garland, regional spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, said the cross-state air pollution rules were based on standards for national air quality established in 1997. They covered sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emissions that travel across state lines. Emissions from Texas coal plants affect Oklahoma, and emissions from Oklahoma coal plants were shown to have reached Michigan.
“Oklahoma City and Tulsa have already had more than a dozen serious air quality days this year, where the ozone levels are high enough to threaten the health of people who exercise or work outdoors, as well as the elderly, young children, and people with respiratory illness,” Garland said.
OG&E spokesman Brian Alford said the EPA found Oklahoma emissions were affecting one county in Michigan that was already meeting ambient air quality standards.
“We, too, had appealed EPA's determination in a separate proceeding as we were very concerned that complying with a rule to potentially improve air quality in one lone county more than 1,000 miles away would have been costly to all Oklahomans and enormously difficult for Oklahoma companies to comply with in the short time frame proposed by the EPA,” Alford said.
Garland said states have had 15 years to figure out the air quality standards. She said the cross-state air pollution rules were one way for residents to fight pollution from other states.
“We think the science is sound and the rule is sound,” Garland said. “I find it unfortunate Scott Pruitt doesn't value the health and life of Michiganders and OG&E still seems committed to old and dirty coal plants.”
Public Service Co. of Oklahoma decided earlier this year to phase out its last two coal units in Oklahoma at the utility's Northeastern station near Oologah. Melissa McHenry, with PSO's parent company American Electric Power in Ohio, said it was too early to say how the court's ruling would affect its compliance plan or planned retirements. She said the company continues to move ahead with capital spending and upgrades to meet emissions-reduction targets for mercury and air toxics under separate EPA rules.
“We are willing to move forward to make additional emission reductions, but we believe it can be done in a more reasonable way that achieves the same environmental goals but will cost less, maintain reliability of the electric grid and have less of a negative impact on the nation's economy,” McHenry said.