Supreme Court Decides to Uphold Virginia’s Uranium Mining Ban

Last Monday, the Supreme Court ruled on Virginia Uranium vs. Warren, a case questioning whether Virginia had the authority to ban Uranium mining, the New York Times Reports. The justices were deciding whether the Atomic Energy Act, a federal law regarding Uranium, would overturn Virginia’s decision to ban the practice after a fierce battle beginning in the 1970s, when Uranium was first discovered in the state.
The Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s right to ban Uranium Mining, with Justice Neil M. Gorusch (joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Kavanaugh) stating that states should have the authority to regulate their own policies on mining. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (joined by Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan) wrote a second opinion, agreeing with much of Gorusch’s analysis but stated that Gorusch’s opinion discussing the perils of questioning the motives of legislation “sweeps well beyond the confines of the case”.
Chief Justice Roberts, along with Justice Breyer and Justice Alito, offered a dissenting opinion. <Read more>

Backyard Talk

What Does Justice Scalia’s Death Mean for Environmental Justice?

By Dylan Lenzen

Nobody can deny that Justice Antonin Scalia was an immensely important figure asd most certainly left his mark on law in America. With his sudden death over a week ago now, I feel great sympathy for his family, friends, and colleagues mourning his loss. With that said, Scalia’s passing and the decision over his replacement will likely have enormous implications for the environment and, perhaps most immediately, climate justice.

While Scalia has offered positive opinions in regards to some cases with environmental justice implications in the past, his legacy towards the environment is most definitely a negative one. The justice regularly offered opinions in favor of property rights over the protection of human lives and the environment.

In multiple cases, he has voted against the EPA’s ability to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions of power plants. Just this summer, he wrote the majority opinion in a case that prevented the EPA from enacting important protections against mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from power plants.

But perhaps most significant, just days before his passing, Scalia was a part of a 5-4 majority that issued a stay, preventing the implementation of the new Clean Power Plan for the time being. Under the plan states would be required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent by 2030. This plan also played an important role in helping the U.S. achieve an agreement at the Paris climate talks. Without such a plan ensuring U.S. emission reductions, there is little reason to believe that other countries will achieve their own commitments.

With Scalia on the Supreme Court, it appeared highly doubtful the Clean Power Plan would ever be implemented. With his passing, this projection changes instantly, providing hope for achieving climate justice.

In the short-term, the decision on the future of this important plan will rest in the hands of the D.C. Circuit court, which is likely to uphold the plan. Next, it would require a majority vote from the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling of the D.C. Circuit court, but with the court now tied at 4-4, this appears unlikely. So, until a new justice is appointed, either by Obama or the next President, should Congressional Republicans get their way, the future of the Clean Power Plan appears secure.

Ultimately, the newest Supreme Court justice is will have serious implications for climate justice in the long-term. Given the recent Republicans in the Senate over Obama’s intention to appoint a new justice, the process could be a long one, and may rest in the hands of the next president.

Backyard Talk

American Health Still Protected Despite Ruling on Mercury Regulation

By Dylan Lenzen

In the wake of some truly momentous Supreme Court decisions regarding the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality, a small battle was lost for public health when the Supreme Court decided to reject the EPA’s regulation of hazardous air pollutants, including mercury. These regulations were enacted in 2012 under the Clean Air Act and have significant implications for coal-fired power plants. Following the June 29 ruling, industry groups and congressional opponents of the regulation claimed significant victory, freeing power plants from costly regulation. While it may appear as such on the surface, a careful reading of the decision implies that this will be but a small bump in the road for the EPA’s effort to protect Americans from the toxic effects of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants. The decision is also unlikely to have any effect on the more ambitious efforts to regulate other pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions that are expected to be released later this year.

When the EPA made the initial decision to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants, it did not take into account the costs that would be imposed on industry. Like other regulations, the exact emission limits were not established until later on in the implementation and it was not until the establishment of these exact limits that the EPA considered the full costs of the regulation. This is essentially what the ruling was concerned with. Justice Scalia, representing the majority, deemed that it was unreasonable for the EPA to fail consider the costs before making the initial decision to regulate emissions as opposed to later on in the process. Luckily, for citizens concerned for their future health, the rejection will not eliminate the important regulations on hazardous emissions. Instead, implementation of the regulation is likely to continue while the standards are sent back to the D.C. Circuit Court where the EPA will be forced to reassess the costs and benefits of the program. Since the standards were enacted back in 2012, most power plants have actually already established compliance under the regulation.

Public health will likely not be threatened with the loss of important protections from hazardous air pollutants. The EPA determined that these Mercury Air Toxics standards would prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 asthma attacks each year. While the EPA did not assess the costs and benefits when proposing the standards, they were assessed later on and show that the overall benefits far outweigh the costs felt by industry. Because power plants would be forced to install methods to control mercury emissions that simultaneously reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and other pollutants, these co-benefits could result in almost $90 billion per year in savings. This figure compares to the estimated costs of compliance of $9.6 billion. Because these benefits vastly outweigh costs, the regulations are likely to remain in place.

It is also important to note that this recent Supreme Court decision will have no impact on President Obama’s Clean Power Plan that is expected to be finalized by the end of the summer. This plan will seek to limit greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. As EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy stated, “making a connection between the Mercury Air Toxics standards and the Clean Power Plan is comparing apples to oranges,” and went on to say in reference to the Clean Power Plan, “last week’s ruling will not affect our efforts.”