Tuesday, September 22, 2009

State of Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co. Inc.

Sep 21: In the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, Case Nos. 05-5104 & 05-5119. In this major 139-page decision regarding citizen and government enforcement of greenhouse gas emissions the Appeals Court summarized saying, the case is appealed from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York that dismissed Plaintiffs-Appellants’ Federal common law of nuisance claims as non-justiciable under the "political question doctrine."

The Appeals Court ruled that, "We hold that: (1) Plaintiffs-Appellants’ claims do not present non-justiciable political questions; (2) Plaintiffs-Appellants have standing to bring their claims; (3) Plaintiffs-Appellants state claims under the federal common law of nuisance; (4) Plaintiffs-Appellants’ claims are not displaced; and (5) the discretionary function exception does not provide Defendant-Appellee Tennessee Valley Authority with immunity from suit. Accordingly, we vacate the judgment of the district court and remand for further proceedings.

The case was finally decided by a two judge panel that noted, "The Honorable Sonia Sotomayor, originally a member of the panel, was elevated to the Supreme Court on August 8, 2009. The two remaining members of the panel, who are in agreement, have determined the matter."

By way of background, in 2004, two groups of Plaintiffs, one consisting of eight States and New York City, and the other consisting of three land trusts (collectively Plaintiffs), separately sued the same six electric power corporations that own and operate fossil-fuel-fired power plants in twenty states (collectively Defendants), seeking abatement of Defendants’ ongoing contributions to the public nuisance of global warming. Plaintiffs claim that global warming, to which Defendants contribute as the “five largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the United States and . . . among the largest in the world,” Connecticut v. Am. Elec. Power Co., 406 F. Supp. 2d 265, 268 (S.D.N.Y. 2005), by emitting 650 million tons per year of carbon dioxide, is causing and will continue to cause serious harms affecting human health and natural resources. They explain that carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere, and that as a result of this trapped heat, the earth’s temperature has risen over the years and will continue to rise in the future. Pointing to a "clear scientific consensus" that global warming has already begun to alter the natural world, Plaintiffs predict that it “will accelerate over the coming decades unless action is taken to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.”

Plaintiffs brought these actions under the Federal common law of nuisance or, in the alternative, state nuisance law, to force Defendants to "cap and then reduce their carbon dioxide emissions." Defendants moved to dismiss on a number of grounds. The district court held that Plaintiffs’ claims presented a non-justiciable political question and dismissed the complaints.

On appeal, Plaintiffs argue that the political question doctrine does not bar adjudication of their claims; that they have standing to assert their claims; that they have properly stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; and that their claims are not displaced by federal statutes. Defendants respond that the district court’s judgment should be upheld, either because the complaints present non-justiciable political questions or on a number of alternate grounds: lack of standing; failure to state a claim; and displacement of Federal common law. In addition, Defendant Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) asserts that the complaints should be dismissed against it on the basis of the discretionary function exception.

The Appeals Court ruled, "We hold that the district court erred in dismissing the complaints on political question grounds; that all of Plaintiffs have standing; that the federal common law of nuisance governs their claims; that Plaintiffs have stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; that their claims are not displaced; and that TVA’s alternate grounds for dismissal are without merit. We therefore vacate the judgment of the district court and remand for further proceedings."

In its conclusion, the Appeals Court said additionally, "With regard to air pollution, particularly greenhouse gases, this case occupies a niche similar to the one Milwaukee I occupied with respect to water pollution. With that in mind, the concluding words of Milwaukee I have an eerie resonance almost forty years later. To paraphrase: 'It may happen that new federal laws and new federal regulations may in time pre-empt the field of federal common law of nuisance. But until that comes to pass, federal courts will be empowered to appraise the equities of the suits alleging creation of a public nuisance' by greenhouse gases. Milwaukee I, 406 U.S. at 106."

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) issued a release calling the decision "a landmark ruling," that "five large electric power companies can be sued in Federal court because their carbon dioxide emissions contribute to rising temperatures and a host of damaging impacts in other states, including heat waves, smog episodes, droughts and forest fires." NRDC said that the Second Circuit "held that Federal courts are empowered to curb damaging carbon pollution unless and until the legislative and executive branches actually regulate that pollution, either under the existing Clean Air Act or the comprehensive new energy and climate legislation bending in Congress."

Included in the NRDC release was a statement from Matt Pawa, lead attorney for the land trusts Open Space Institute and the Audubon Society of New Hampshire saying, “The court’s decision makes clear that the harms of global warming are real and need to be addressed today. For hundreds of years, courts have been there to protect citizens from harm. Today’s decision opens the way for citizens to protect themselves from the polluters responsible for global warming. Power companies that release millions of tons of dangerous carbon pollution are not above the law.”

Also, David Doniger, senior attorney and policy director for NRDC’s Climate Center said, “The best way to fight global warming is for the Senate to pass comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation. However, the court’s decision guarantees that if the Congress fails to do its job, or blocks EPA from doing its job, the biggest power companies will still be held accountable in the federal courts.”

Access the complete opinion (click here). Access a release from NRDC (click here).

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