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Utah environmentalists worry about consequences of Supreme Court’s ‘good neighbor’ suspension

DELTA, UT - MARCH 28: Power lines lead into the coal-fired Intermountain Power Plant on March 28, 2016 outside Delta, Utah. The IPP generates more then 13 million megawatt hours of coal-fired energy each year to Utah and Southern California.
George Frey
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Getty Images North America
DELTA, UT - MARCH 28: Power lines lead into the coal-fired Intermountain Power Plant on March 28, 2016 outside Delta, Utah. The IPP generates more then 13 million megawatt hours of coal-fired energy each year to Utah and Southern California.

After the Supreme Court temporarily halted an Environmental Protection Agency rule that would regulate air pollutants across state lines, Utah environmentalists warn of the effects such a block could have on both the environment and on Utahns’ health.

Under the 2015 EPA policy, also known as the “Good Neighbor” plan, states had to design their air quality plans considering how air currents could transfer air pollution from factories and power plants across state borders. The Supreme Court sided with Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia in challenging the rule. Utah had won its own legal challenge to the rule in a separate case in 2023, in which a court paused the rule in the state.

Thursday’s 5-4 decision said that the EPA had failed to adequately explain why it needed to regulate the pollution so tightly. The justices said industry groups and the 12 states that sued to block the rule entirely were likely to prevail in court, so the Supreme Court agreed to pause the rule while the challenges work their way through lower courts.

Utah environmental advocates had been worried about the looming decision from the Supreme Court for months, saying less strict air quality standards would cause health problems nationwide.

“Essentially, the Supreme Court has made another ruling that ties the hands of federal agencies in protecting the public,” Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said on Thursday.

The issue of unhealthy ozone levels downwind from pollution sources has been more pronounced in eastern states. However, Moench said, it also affects western states, like Utah, where pollution from major coal-fired plants has drifted towards states like Colorado, affecting its air quality.

That poor air quality has significant effects on children, pregnant women and fetal development, among other problems, Moench said.

“The court’s action to delay any sort of reasonable increase in the pollution controls of these power plants is going to cost people lives,” he said. “It’s undoubtedly going to cost thousands of lives. It’s going to affect the health of hundreds of thousands of children, or maybe even more.”

Utah also has big issues with air quality. Salt Lake City doesn’t meet federal standards for particulate matter pollution, and its residents suffer from several health problems, including respiratory concerns.

“We now know that air pollution affects the functioning of every single organ system. It can even penetrate every single organ system, including individual cells within all critical organs, the brain, the heart, the lungs, kidneys, liver, etc,” Moench said.

Moench also described the court action as a “huge setback” for climate protection, since lowering the pollution control standards would be financially beneficial to coal-fired plants, “a financial gift that many of them will exploit to stay in business longer. And we know that the carbon emissions from coal fired power plants are major contributors to the climate crisis,” he said.

Gov. Spencer Cox, who has been vocal in his opposition to the EPA policy, also known as the Ozone Interstate Transport Rule, lauded the Supreme Court’s decision.

“The EPA’s proposed Ozone Transport Rule is yet another example of federal overreach. This is one that would have dire consequences for energy security and reliability in Utah,” Cox said in a statement.

In a letter, also signed by the governors of Wyoming and Idaho, Cox told EPA Administrator Michael Regan that the “Good Neighbor” rule threatened power plants necessary to ensure reliable power generation.

“We are determined to avoid the painful and economically destructive power outages that other states have experienced as a result of poor energy decisions over many years, but this rule makes that effort far more difficult,” the governors wrote.

The governors added that the rule violated “the principles of cooperative federalism,” and cited modeling and data issues and a timeline “too short” for an energy transition.

“The federal plan will result in power plant shutdowns, adverse impacts to non-(electric generating units), the nationwide loss of jobs, and exacerbation of the grid reliability crisis,” they wrote.

Though the rule had been temporarily blocked in Utah already, other states had to comply with the standard until Thursday.

“I am thrilled to see the U.S. Supreme Court today halt the implementation of the rule for other states impacted,” Cox said in his statement.

While Cox described the rule as “federal overreach,” Moench characterized the Supreme Court action as “legal overreach.”

“It’s hard to state how frustrated and disappointed we are that they continue to make these kinds of rulings in basically undermining decades of public health research, regulatory experience and decades of climate science,” Moench said. “It’s inexplicable.”

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.