Clean Air in the Balance

The US Supreme Court this week stopped a significant legal challenge to the federal Clean Air Act. But a vigorous political and legal debate over the costs involved in applying the act's broad regulatory powers will undoubtedly continue.

Acting with unaccustomed unanimity, the court made it clear those powers themselves were not in question.

The justices threw out a lower court ruling that Congress had unconstitutionally delegated too much of its authority to an executive agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, when it passed the clean air law in 1970. That ruling, if it had stood, posed a threat not only to environmental regulation, but to federal regulatory powers generally.

More significantly, the court also rejected the contention of truckers and other industry interests that the EPA's clean air standards for smog (ozone) and soot, set in 1997, were invalid because they didn't take into account the costs of meeting them.

The question of such costs to industry is at the heart of environmental debate in the country.

Sticking closely to the text of the Clean Air Act, the justices said Congress's intent was clear: The EPA had to consider only public health concerns, not costs to industry, in setting clean-air standards.

Those other costs, however, are by no means out of the picture. States can take them into account as they devise ways of meeting EPA standards. The high court, too, acknowledged these costs when it ruled that EPA's smog standard, which calls for immediate implementation, violated Congress's intent to give regions reasonable time to comply with such rules.

Revising the standards and enforcing them now falls to the Bush EPA. Administrator Christie Whitman will have the tough task of upholding the strict clean air ideal, while dealing with the cost concerns of business.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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