States seek rights to sue polluters

Sarah Gardner Apr 18, 2011
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States seek rights to sue polluters

Sarah Gardner Apr 18, 2011
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JEREMY HOBSON: The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in a key global warming lawsuit. Six states and New York City want the right to sue power companies for their contribution to climate change.

As Sarah Gardner reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, the case is putting the Obama administration in an awkward position.


SARAH GARDNER: We’ll get to that awkwardness in a minute. But first, the case. This one started back in 2004, when George Bush was president and the Environmental Protection Agency had no desire to regulate global warming emissions. The plaintiffs, including Connecticut and California, hoped the federal courts would do it instead. They filed suit against American Electric Power and four other utilities that burn a lot of coal to make electricity.

DAVID DONIGER: These five companies are the biggest carbon polluters in the country. They are responsible for 10 percent of all the carbon dioxide from the United States. And 2.5 percent of all the world’s carbon dioxide.

The world’s CO2 emissions, to be more precise. Plaintiffs’ attorney David Doniger says they’re simply asking the courts to do what Congress won’t — set a limit on how much CO2 these utilities can pump out of their smokestacks every year. That’s an idea the Obama administration likes in theory. But the Justice Department is siding with the power companies on this one. Here’s the awkward part.

MICHAEL GERRARD: One of the defendant utilities is the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Columbia University’s Michael Gerrard says the federal government owns the TVA. So the Justice Department represents the utility at the Supreme Court. Gerrard says it’s not that the Feds want to let the TVA and other greenhouse gas emitters off the hook —

GERRARD: But they think it’s really up to the executive agencies and to Congress to set these emissions standards and that as long as that’s happening, the courts shouldn’t be setting these standards.

Of course, whether that’s happening is debatable. The EPA is adopting greenhouse gas rules but hasn’t come out with specific limits. Plaintiffs see this case as the ultimate backstop in the battle to stop global warming.

I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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