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SCOTUS to hear case over global warming

Sarah Gardner Apr 18, 2011

SCOTUS to hear case over global warming

Sarah Gardner Apr 18, 2011

Bob Moon: A lawsuit over global warming is guaranteed to heat things up tomorrow at the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices are set to hear oral arguments in “Connecticut v. American Electric Power.”
It’s all about the right to sue power companies
over their greenhouse gas emissions.

And as Sarah Gardner reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, the high court’s decision has the potential to embolden — or stifle — climate change litigation in this country.

Sarah Gardner: This case pits a coalition of states and private land trusts against some of the country’s biggest coal-burning utilities. In 2004, the plaintiffs sued the power companies under federal nuisance laws.

Bruce Myers at the Environmental Law Institute simplifies it for us.

Bruce Myers: They are saying, you the power industry defendants are emitting greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide. That is contributing to climate change and we are suffering injuries from that.

Injuries like flooding and rising sea levels. They asked the court to impose limits on the utilities’ CO2 emissions. A lower court dismissed the lawsuit, saying global warming emissions were a political, not a judicial matter. But in 2009 a federal appeals court stunned the power industry by reversing that ruling. Industry is now asking the Supreme Court to decide.

Ed Comer: The critical question in this case is who sets climate policy in this country. Does Congress do it or do the courts?

Ed Comer is an attorney at the industry group, Edison Electric Institute. Comer says if states and private groups win the right to file nuisance suits over global warming emissions…

Comer: Utilities would be subject to multiple and potentially conflicting climate standards. We are now subject to standards that are being set by EPA.

Well, sort of. Since this lawsuit was filed in 2004, the EPA has started to draw up greenhouse gas regulations. But it hasn’t limited how much CO2 power plants can spew every year — yet. And Congressional Republicans are trying mightily to make sure it never does.

David Doniger, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that uncertainty is why this lawsuit must go forward.

David Doniger: In the battle to stop global warming, this is the ultimate backstop. If a hostile Congress were to block EPA, the states and the land trusts, they need someplace to turn for relief.

If the Supreme Court rejects that argument, legal observers say it will put global warming litigation in the deep freeze. That includes a closely-watched case in Alaska. The native village of Kivalina sued two dozen energy companies for over $400 million in global warming damages. Rising sea levels have eroded parts of their town.

I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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