It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally the Environmental Protection Agency loses a battle in court over the regulatory burden they place on the private sector. That’s what happened yesterday in a West Virginia court when a district court judge ruled that the agency’s Clean Air Act regulations were having a disproportionate effect on the coal industry in the form of job losses for coal miners, and the EPA has a duty to take those effects into account when enacting new regulations. (The Hill)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not properly estimated the potential job losses in the coal and other industries affected by its regulations, a federal judge ruled Monday.

Judge John Preston Bailey of the District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia ruled in favor of coal mining company Murray Energy Corp. saying the Clean Air Act gives the EPA administrator a “non-discretionary duty” to track the potential job losses and shifts in employment from regulations written under the act.

The decision is a largely symbolic win for energy sectors hurt by EPA regulations, however, because there is no guarantee that job loss analyses would change the policies at issue.

At issue is a provision in the decades old legislation which requires the EPA to track and monitor the effects of Clean Air Act regulations on employment and report those findings so that Congress can more accurately gauge the effects and respond accordingly. The EPA has, by their own admission, been doing “proactive analysis” of anticipated effects on the labor market and not much more. Judge Preston excoriated the agency, saying that the EPA, “cannot redefine statutes to avoid complying with them.”

The problem for the coal miners, however, is that this is a technical victory at best which may not provide much in the way of short term relief, if it has any impact at all. This ruling may indeed force someone at the agency to go dredge up their projections for job losses, collect the data for actual mine closures and layoffs and publish all of it. But that doesn’t mean that they will then turn around and modify any of their regulatory policies with an eye toward saving jobs. They can dump that task in the lap of Congress, deciding internally that such losses are simply one of the costs of doing business.

Still, the coal miners have at least one day to celebrate some good news. If nothing else, their voices are being heard and their complaints being recognized in a court of law.