Supreme Court Rejects Attack On Clean Air Standards

February 27, 2001

Today the United States Supreme Court rejected an industry-led attack on critical new clean air standards. The clean air standards at issue were established by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1997 to limit the pollution levels of smog and fine, sooty particles. EPA estimates that the standards will protect 125 million Americans from adverse health effects of air pollution and each year will prevent:

  • 15,000 premature deaths
  • 350,000 cases of aggravated asthma
  • 1 million cases of significantly decreased lung function in children

“The Supreme Court’s historic decision confirms what was clear three and a half years ago: that EPA’s new standards to limit the pollution levels of smog and soot were based on sound science, sound policy and a sound reading of the law,” said Vickie Patton, Environmental Defense senior attorney. “When implemented, these standards will protect 125 million Americans from the serious health effects of smog and soot, and each year will help reduce 350,000 cases of aggravated asthma and 15,000 premature deaths. Unfortunately, industry’s legal attacks have delayed by several years fundamental steps to begin implementing these standards.”

Nondelegation Doctrine Issue
Two major issues were presented to the Court. First, whether EPA’s authority to establish the new standards violated the constitutional prohibition on the delegation of legislative power. There have been only two cases in our constitutional history, both decided in 1935, in which the Supreme Court has overturned statutory authority on these grounds. Since then, the Court has repeatedly and consistently rejected nondelegation doctrine challenges to a wide variety of administrative actions. The lower court decision in the Clean Air Act case was widely perceived to be out of step with 65 years of Supreme Court jurisprudence.

Cost Issue
The second issue was whether EPA should take into account the economic impact on polluters when setting the health-based clean air standards. For the past 30 years, the Clean Air Act consistently has been interpreted by EPA, Congress and the lower courts to require that the standards be established at levels necessary to protect public health. At the same time, however, the law makes costs integral to the air pollution control strategies that states and local communities develop to achieve these standards.