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.
"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 M. 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."
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.