Supreme Court Climate Change Case Could Change Playing Field
The majority of the U.S. Supreme Court appeared skeptical on Tuesday about handing over authority about climate change rules from the Environmental Protection Agency to a federal judge.
If the justices do dismiss the lawsuit from a handful of states when it issues a ruling later this year, it would mark a significant victory for the Obama administration as Washington D.C. remains increasingly divided over how to deal with climate change.
Several states, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Iowa and the city of New York, want the ability to sue companies that produce greenhouse emissions.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on “American Electric Power Co. (AEP) v. Connecticut” will determine, as SCOTUSblog puts it, “whether federal law allows states and private parties to sue utilities for contributing to global warming.” Driving the case is the notion of “public nuisance” – a stature established by common law that makes entities liable for damages against the wellbeing of a community.
The case comes as the Obama administration, environmental groups, and Republicans disagree sharply over how the U.S. should deal with climate change.
Particularly, the White House has come to side with utility companies against the states’ argument, holding the opinion that the Environmental Protection Agency, not the courts and “public nuisance” complaints should determine climate change policy decisions.
In doing so, the White House finds itself at odds with environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council – groups that argue that judicial cases like “AEP v. Connecticut” provide a safety net for states to regulate the environment in the event that the EPA and other federal entities cannot deliver. As noted by The Washington Post:
The uncertainty about legislation and regulation is the best reason for allowing the case to proceed, said David Doniger, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which represents Audubon and other private groups dedicated to land conservation.
“This case was always the ultimate backstop,” Doniger said, even as he noted that the council would prefer legislation or EPA regulation to court decisions. The suit would end if the EPA does set emission standards for greenhouse gases, he said.
Increasingly the EPA has come insight of Republican crosshairs. Amid the congressional showdown between both parties last Friday, Republicans succeeded in eliminating $1.6 billion from the EPA’s budget, with a $25 million reduction in funding for states to support greenhouse gas programs. As reported by the New York Times:
…with Republicans determined to rein in the E.P.A., environmentalists say, things could have been worse. Bigger clashes may be coming, as Congress draws battle lines over the budget for the next fiscal year.
With doubts as to the federal government's ability to regulate the environment, states have decided to keep on pushing.
“AEP v. Connecticut” has been in the making since 2004, when Connecticut and other states sued American Electric Power, Southern Company, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Xcel Energy, and Cinergy under the claim that pollution on their behalf amounts to an act that poses a threat to the community. The US District Court in Southern New York dismissed the case in 2005, but in 2009 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit overturned the previous ruling.
Both sides presented their arguments to the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
Reach reporter Aaron Liu here.
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