New air quality legislation “would cost businesses $50 billion”

In a critical environmental judgement on 7 November, the US Supreme Court has queried industry arguments that the federal government must consider cost as well as health benefits in setting national air pollution standards.

Attorney Edward Warren, who represents industry groups opposed to new air quality standards (see related story) said the legislation would cost businesses nearly $50 billion a year. “This agency wants to regulate every nook and cranny of this environment,” he complained, claiming the EPA exceeded its authority in adopting the standards without taking into account the cost of compliance.

But US Solicitor General Seth Waxman argued for the Government that the law only required the EPA to set standards at a level necessary to protect public health.

He said the Clean Air law of 1970 created a two-part process whereby the EPA sets standards based on the latest scientific information, after which it can consider implementation costs.

The EPA has predicted that the rules, which have yet to come into effect, would save lives and billions of dollars in health costs, protecting 125 million Americans from ill health caused by air pollution.

During the hearing, it was apparent that the Supreme Court justices viewed the industry groups’ arguments with some scepticism. Justice John Paul Stevens said Warren’s argument boiled down to standards that protect the public health as long as they do not cost too much.

Warren denied this interpretation, but the attack continued with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor asking him to summarise in one sentence the standard he would use to define public health. Warren responded that public health “contemplates consideration of competing factors, including cost,” to reduce levels of sickness and increase longevity.

But other justices expressed concern that adding economic factors to the equation would complicate the setting of standards and provide more possible areas to attack.

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