KAI RYSSDAL: The Supreme Court is knee-deep in business cases this week. Tobacco company Philip Morris was on the docket today. In a dispute about how steep punitive damages can be. The fun continues tomorrow with a long cast of characters including outdated power plants and dirty smokestacks. Nancy Marshall Genzer reports environmentalists have taken on Duke Energy.
NANCY MARSHALL GENZER: The smokestack takes center stage in this drama. The question: how should the Environmental Protection Agency measure the pollution spewing from a smokestack?
That's an important piece of the plot. If the government clocks more emissions, the company has to pay more for pollution controls. Duke wants the Supreme Court to decide emissions should be counted by the hour, no matter how many hours a plant operates.
Duke Energy Spokesman Scott Segal says that's fair, because the company can't control demand for its power.
SCOTT SEGAL:"The power plant will operate longer in order to respond to the increased demand. Well, that has nothing to do with how effective the power plant is at controlling emissions."
But Clean Air Watch President Frank O'Donnell says the bottom line is net pollution, pure and simple.
FRANK O'DONNELL:"If they run a plant, let's say, 60 hours a week as opposed to 30 hours a week . . . Well, of course they're gonna pollute a lot more, even though they claim they're only putting out the same amount per hour."
Another argument the power companies make involves maintenance. Nebraska State Attorney General Jon Bruning filed a friend of the court brief in the case. He says plants could decide to put off repairs if that meant machinery would run longer, requiring extra pollution permits.
JON BRUNING:"It's one of those things where if you think it's going to cost you $2 million in permitting to do some standard maintenance, you're just going to be a little nervous to do it."
Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch says maintenance schmatenance — old plants should be replaced.
FRANK O'DONNELL:"The electric power industry has for many years tried to extend the life of smoky old dinosaurs so that they would continue polluting for decades beyond their useful life."
This case could put those old dinosaurs out to pasture in Jurassic Park. But that's assuming the Supreme Court justices will write an ending to this drama. They could just send it back to a lower court for review.
I'm Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.