The US Court of Appeals has backed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its action on atmospheric pollution by rejecting a legal challenge to its air quality rules. The decision leaves 19 states east of the Mississippi with four months in which to develop state implementation plans (SIPs) setting out how they will reduce emissions of NOx by as much as 30 per cent over the implementation period, which is until May 2003.

However, although the EPA has left it to individual states to tackle exactly how these reductions are to be achieved, with US motorists already aggrieved by the comparatively high prices at the petrol pump it appears more than likely that the reductions will come from fossil-fuelled generation stations. The EPA has suggested this would be the least expensive way of achieving results, although this could be interpreted in terms of both political and financial capital.

Nonetheless, the utility companies and generators most likely to bear the brunt of the SIP cost do not appear to be willing to roll over and play dead. With reliability currently a hot issue in the US, and especially in the Midwest where the EPA claims the bulk of the NOx emissions affecting the Northeast originate, utilities are pointing out that the already critically strained power supplies could collapse. If the bulk of coal-fired generation is brought off-line for months on end as emissions control equipment is fitted, the utilities suggest, the costs could be more than financial. It seems almost certain that the Supreme Court will be forced to make the final ruling on the case. Generators argue that the EPA has exceeded its authority and is conducting a crusade against the Midwest generators while exercising leniency on the Northeast automotive sector, a claim the Agency rejects. The appeal court backed the earlier court ruling and lifted a stay that had allowed the states to ignore the call for development of SIPs. The 19 states are Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina and South Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.