Riverkeepers: Is Weighing the Cost and Benefits of Environmental Regulations Really "Back On The Table"

On April 1st, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Entergy v. Riverkeepers which examined whether a cost benefit analysis is appropriate under certain provisions of the Clean Water Act, specifically Section 316(b) of the Act. As detailed below, there has been wide ranging debate over the significance of the decision.

At issue are large power plant cooling water intakes.  In the course of operation of these intakes large amounts of fish are pinned against the screens (called "impingement") or sucked into the plant (called "entrainment").  Due to the harmful effect to aquatic ecosystems, the intakes are subject to EPA regulations.  The CWA requires the location, design, construction, and capacity of cooling water intake structures reflect the best technology available for minimizing adverse environmental impact. 

EPA adopted regulations applicable to existing plants.  The regulations included the option for plants to obtain a variance from the requirement to install specified technology.  To obtain a variance the plant would need to demonstrate:

  1. costs of compliance are “significantly greater than” the costs considered by the agency in setting the standards, 40 CFR §125.94(a)(5)(i), or
  2. costs of compliance “would be significantly greater than the benefits of complying with the applicable performance standards,” §125.94(a)(5)(ii).

Where a variance is warranted, the permit-issuing authority must impose remedial measures that yield results “as close as practicable to the applicable performance standards.” 

Environmental groups challenged the ability to obtain a variance after performing a cost-benefit analysis.  The groups challenging EPA's rule argued that Section 316(b) is silent on the use of cost as a factor in setting forth the "best technology available" standard.  Because the statute is silent, the groups challenging the regulation argued the variance provision was illegal. 

Justice Scalia wrote the opinion for the Court which rejected the argument that 316(b)'s  silence means costs cannot be considered.  However, Justice Scalia did point to other language in the statute that the Court believed indicates costs could be considered.

the statute's use of the less ambitious goal of “minimizing adverse environmental impact” suggests, we think, that the agency retains some discretion to determine the extent of reduction that is warranted under the circumstances. That determination could plausibly involve a consideration of the benefits derived from reductions and the costs of achieving them.

There has been significant debate over the importance of the ruling.  (See New York Time- Groups Debate Supreme Court's Power Plant Ruling.  In the NYT's article, some argue the door is now open to increased use of cost-benefit analysis in environmental regulatory decision-making:

"While the Entergy decision rests on close analysis of the statutory language of a particular Clean Water Act provision, it is likely to be highly influential in granting EPA discretion to use cost-benefit analysis more generally when statutory language does not preclude it," said Tim Bishop, a partner in the Supreme Court and appellate practice at Mayer Brown.

The Wall Street Journal comments that the decision will have significant impact on future regulations:

The ruling addresses a huge question in the energy and environment battle raging right now—namely, how to strike the balance between environmental protections and safeguarding the economy. It also brings the field of cost-benefit analysis squarely back into the environmental debate.

The statements appearing in the Wall Street Journal dramatically overstate the impact of the decision.  The decision was based upon a very close analysis of the language in one specific provision of the Clean Water Act.  The Court avoided wide pronouncements regarding the use of cost benefit analysis in environmental decision making.

Even more importantly, silence alone was not enough.  Justice Scalia found other language in the statute- "minimizing"- as suggesting Congress intended costs to be considered. There are plenty of instances where environmental statutes strictly forbid considerations of costs.  In fact, Justice Scalia in his opinion cites to several other Clean Water Act sections that he deems to prohibit cost considerations. 

For cost-benefit analysis to really become a major factor in environmental policy, Congress will have to insert affirmative language into environmental statutes to allow for costs to be considered.  Something that appears unlikely given the current make up of Congress.

 (Photo: flickr mcgervey)

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