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The Ethics of Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency

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It is no secret (to most) that we as a world community are at a pivotal moment in regards to climate change and our global environment. More and more we are starting to see and feel the effects of hundreds of years of neglect and destruction of the environment. This makes moments such as the Supreme Court’s June 2015 ruling in Michigan v. EPA against the Environmental Protection Agency all the more important. In a 5-4 ruling, the Court found that the EPA acted unreasonably when they decided that they did not need to consider cost implications when imposing regulations on power plants nationwide to reduce the emission of mercury and other hazardous chemicals. Though the EPA did in fact estimate how much the regulations would cost power plants (later in the process), as well as the financial, environmental and health returns of the regulations, they felt that, in this case, “costs should not be considered” (Michigan v. EPA), an opinion that the Court ultimately disagreed with.

In accordance with The Clean Air Act of 1990, the EPA has the authority to regulate factories, power plants, and other sources of potentially hazardous air pollutants, depending on the quantity and type of pollutants emitted from these sources. In late 2011, the EPA issued their new regulations on mercury and other toxic pollutants for coal and oil-burning power plants, estimating the cost for those power plants to take steps to reduce their emissions to be approximately $9.6 billion per year. Though at that time the EPA could not give a definitive amount in terms of the benefits from reducing these toxins, they estimated it to be in the range of $4-$6 million annually. That number, as estimated by the EPA, when combined with the variety of potential public health benefits from reduced emissions, increased exponentially to $37 billion-$90 billion annually. The problem for the EPA, in the eyes of 23 states and the general power plant industry, was that they did not consider these cost implications when they initially issues the regulations, instead choosing to examine the monetary costs and benefits after the fact. These parties, as well as the Court felt that the EPA greatly overstepped their authority under The Clean Air Act by doing so. Whether they realized it or not, the justices who comprised the “Opinion of the Court” in this case employed Utilitarian ethics, while the justices of the “Dissenting Opinion” employed a more Deontological viewpoint.

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The “Opinion of the Court,” comprised of Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Roberts and Alito came to the ultimate conclusion that, “EPA interpreted §7412(n)(1)(A) [of the Clean Air Act] unreasonably when it deemed cost irrelevant to the decision to regulate power plants’ (Michigan vs. EPA). Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Scalia stated, “It is not rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits’ (Michigan v. EPA). Jeremy Bentham states that the “principle of utility” (Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation) is “that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question….” (Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation). In their decision, these justices, by only examining the impact of the costs of these regulations rather than the health benefits, saw the monetary interests of the power plant companies as being the “interest in question.” As such, the justices sought to promote the greatest immediate and long-term happiness of these companies by shooting down these regulations that would harm the companies’ bottom line.

On the flip side, the justices comprising the “Dissenting Opinion” examined this issue in a much more Deontological manner. Representing the “Dissenting Opinion” of fellow Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “The Agency [EPA] acted well within its authority in declining to consider costs at the opening bell of the regulatory process given that it would do so in every round thereafter’ (Michigan v. EPA). These justices argued that whether or not the EPA took these cost implications into consideration at the outset of the regulatory process was irrelevant, since they did consider cost implications later in the process.

Additionally, they agreed with the EPA that the health benefits of these regulations negated the need to heavily weigh the cost implications in any case. In “The Moral Law”, Immanuel Kant argues that good will and actions are good “by virtue of the volition, that is, it is good in itself” (Kant, The Moral Law). He feels that the end result of actions is not what determines if they are right or wrong, but that all actions have an intrinsic morality, or lack thereof. These justices, in accounting for the health benefits of these EPA regulations in a way in which the justices of the “Opinion of the Court” did not, saw the morality of this decision. Whether the regulations would harm the finances of the states and power plant companies was largely irrelevant to these justices, since they knew that the regulations were enacted purely for the benefit of public health and the environment. Perhaps thinking about the world that the future generations were going to live in, they knew that these EPA regulations were moral, and therefore their support of these EPA regulations was moral.

Overall, I whole-heartedly agree with the “Dissenting Opinion” in this case. It is apparent to me that the members of the “Opinion of the Court” did not view this manner in an ultimately moral fashion, since they did not take the health ramifications of their decision into account. Though I personally view myself as more of a Utilitarian thinker than a Deontological one, in this particular case I feel as though a Deontological mindset was the only justifiable one. Had the justices of the “Opinion of the Court” accounted for just how beneficial the EPA’s regulations would be to the health of all people and the planet as a whole, I believe that they would’ve felt that supporting the EPA was the only moral decision. Unfortunately, because they not only used a Utilitarian mindset but also that they haphazardly used a Utilitarian mindset only to look at the harm or benefit to the power plant companies, lives will be lost, illnesses related to toxic pollutants will develop, and our planet will suffer.

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