Image: Smog and New Jersey skyline
Adam Rountree  /  AP file
A court ruling Friday struck down an environmetal rule aimed reducing air pollution on the East Coast, including the smog that sometimes shrouds the New Jersey skyline seen in this image in July 2007.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/11/2008 2:14:09 PM ET 2008-07-11T18:14:09

A federal appeals court unanimously struck down a signature component of President Bush's clean air policies Friday, dealing a blow to environmental groups and likely delaying further action until the next administration.

The regulation, known as the Clean Air Interstate Rule, required 28 mostly Eastern states to reduce smog-forming and soot-producing emissions that can travel long distances in the wind. The Environmental Protection Agency predicted it would prevent about 17,000 premature deaths a year.

North Carolina and some electric power producers opposed aspects of the regulation and President Bush found himself with unusual allies.

"This is the rare case where environmental groups went to court alongside the Bush administration," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a group that has criticized other Bush administration policies.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled Friday that the EPA overstepped its authority by instituting the rule. It said the Clean Air Act did not give the EPA the authority to change pollution standards the way it did. Citing "more than several fatal flaws," the court scrapped the entire regulation.

'Worst news' on air pollution
"This is without a doubt the worst news of the year when it comes to air pollution," O'Donnell said.

The EPA said the rule would dramatically reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, saving up to $100 billion in health benefits. Besides the reduction in premature deaths, the EPA also said the rule would have prevented millions of lost work and school days and tens of thousands of nonfatal heart attacks.

The ruling was somewhat of a surprise, even to industry groups that challenged aspects of the law.

William Bumpers, an attorney representing Entergy Corp., said a few electric companies flatly opposed the regulation but most generally favored it because it included cap-and-trade provisions. Such provisions allow companies that exceed emissions caps to buy credits from companies that do not.

"The power-generating industry had already invested billions and billions of dollars in anticipation of the trading market," Bumpers said. "They're not happy with this development."

Appeal possible
The EPA said it was reviewing the 60-page opinion and would issue a response later Friday. The Bush administration can appeal the decision but environmental groups called for Congress and the EPA to quickly begin working on a new law or replacement regulation.

The Environmental Integrity Project noted the rule would have required "significant reductions of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants" and created an emissions trading program.

"The court’s decision will leave millions of Americans exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution from dirty power plants," EIP director Erich Schaeffer said in a statement. "For seven years, the Bush administration has tried to weaken or eliminate Clean Air Act emission standards for power plants and other industries, while promising that its CAIR rule would make up the difference. That promise has proved to be hollow."

"The DC Circuit’s decision today is only the latest is a series of rulings that have roundly rejected the Bush administration’s creative interpretations of the Clean Air Act," said Schaeffer, a former EPA official.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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