The EPA’s Good Neighbor Plan: Defending Public Health in the Supreme Court

The future of the Good Neighbor Plan hangs in the balance, with implications for public health and economic prosperity nationwide.

Case Overview

Industrial polluters and their political allies are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block the Good Neighbor Plan, a regulation issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to control smog pollution. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the challengers’ request on Feb. 21, 2024.

Smog, composed mainly of ground-level ozone, is a dangerous air pollutant that impairs our breathing and increases our risk for lung and heart disease. It comes from burning fossil fuels and like all air pollution, smog does not stay in one place; it moves between states. So, for example, industry and power plants in Texas emit air pollution that contributes to dangerous smog levels as far away as Illinois. Illinois in turn needs the Good Neighbor Plan to curtail this air pollution.

As shown in an interactive map, communities all around the country are exposed to dangerous levels of ozone smog. More than 115 million people in the U.S. live in communities where ozone levels exceed the current health standard.

Map of smog air pollution by county in 2022.

Smog air pollution by county. See full map. (Air Quality System Data / U.S. EPA)

The Good Neighbor Plan, proposed in 2023 after an Earthjustice lawsuit, requires power plants and other industrial sources in 23 upwind states to reduce their smog-causing emissions. The EPA estimates that full implementation of the plan would prevent over 1,300 premature deaths and millions of asthma cases in its first year alone. Additionally, it is projected to boost the economy by preventing school absences and lost workdays.

Eager to avoid any changes that can harm their bottom line, industrial polluters challenged EPA’s Good Neighbor Plan in the D.C. Circuit and asked that the court “stay” the plan, or block its implementation, while that litigation proceeds. The D.C. Circuit denied that request, finding that the challengers didn’t meet the demanding test for a stay at this early stage. After the D.C. Circuit refused to block the plan, Republican-led states, fossil fuel industry groups, and energy utilities filed “emergency” requests with the Supreme Court to block air pollution limits before lower courts could hear their legal challenges.

“The Supreme Court’s willingness to even entertain this extraordinary industry request shows how aggressively some right-wing Justices are pursuing a deregulatory agenda,” said Earthjustice Senior Vice President Sam Sankar. “If they block the EPA’s smog regulations before any lower court can even evaluate them, it will encourage companies to come straight to the Supreme Court any time a new government regulation threatens their profits, even if those profits come at the cost of people’s health and lives.”

As the Supreme Court deliberates, the nation awaits a verdict that will shape the trajectory of environmental policy and public health initiatives. It is unclear when the Supreme Court will rule on the Good Neighbor Plan. A ruling in favor of the EPA would uphold its responsibility to protect air quality and ensure equitable access to clean air for all Americans.

Earthjustice and its clients have defended the Good Neighbor Plan in court for years. Clients include Air Alliance Houston, Appalachian Mountain Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Downwinders at Risk, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Sierra Club, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

A haze of smog covers the Port of Houston.
A haze of smog covers the Port of Houston. (James Dillard)

Case Updates

February 21, 2024 In the News: CNN

Supreme Court signals skepticism over Biden ‘good neighbor’ smog plan

Sam Sankar, Senior Vice President of Programs: “Polluting industries always challenge pollution regulations because it costs them money to protect our health. We’re hoping that a few members of the court’s right-wing supermajority will remember that they shouldn’t be second-guessing sound judgments about what’s best for our kids’ lungs.”

Smoke billows from a series of smokestacks, obscuring the sun.
February 21, 2024 Press Release

SCOTUS Hears Extraordinary Request to Block EPA’s New Smog Plan

The future of the Good Neighbor Plan is uncertain, with implications for public health and economic prosperity

The U.S. Supreme Court.
February 21, 2024 Press Release

Supreme Court to Hear Oral Arguments on Cross-State Ozone Pollution

Blocking the Good Neighbor Plan would be extraordinarily harmful