Global-warming lawsuit rejected by Supreme Court

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court killed a potentially enormous global-warming lawsuit against the nation’s five largest electric power companies, ruling Monday that the regulation of greenhouse gases is entrusted to Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The 8-0 decision is a setback for environmentalists who hoped the lawsuit would spur action to limit carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The outcome puts more pressure on the Obama administration and the EPA to carry through with promises to issue new regulations for the power plants by the fall.

The EPA has adopted stricter emissions standards for new motor vehicles, and it says it will soon propose new standards for power plants. But the Republican-led Congress has voiced opposition to new regulations of energy producers.


The suit which ended Monday began in 2004 during a time when the Bush administration contended it had no legal authority to regulate the carbon pollution that is blamed for climate change. The EPA then said that the Clean Air Act dealt with traditional pollution, like smog, but not carbon dioxide.

Eight states, including California, New York and Connecticut, joined environmentalists in launching the lawsuit against the power companies. Their claim was based on the old doctrine that someone could file a “nuisance” suit against another party for polluting its air or water.

In recent decades, such “nuisance” suits had all but disappeared. Congress had adopted the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, and environmental disputes turned on interpretations of those laws. Nonetheless, a U.S. appeals court in New York had allowed the global warming suit to go forward as a “public nuisance” claim because the government had not adopted limits on carbon pollution from power plants.

In explaining why the suit must end, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that the court in 2007 had ruled that the EPA had the authority to regulate greenhouses gases under the Clean Air Act. That decision undercut the need for a separate lawsuit dealing with the same problem, she said.

“We have before us, to put it plainly, a ‘who decides’ question,” she said. “The EPA is currently engaged in a rulemaking to decide whether the agency should set limits on emissions from domestic power plants. The Clean Air Act, in our judgment, leaves no room for a parallel track” that would call upon a judge to decide on the need for regulations, she said.

All the justices joined her opinion in American Electric Power Co. vs. Connecticut, except Justices Sonia Sotomayor, who recused herself. She was on the appeals court in New York which decided the matter earlier.

The other states that backed the original suit were Iowa, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin. More recently, New Jersey and Wisconsin had backed away after Republican governors took office.