In a creative effort to curb carbon emissions, six states, along with New York City and several land trusts, decided to pursue a different policy tactic than previous environmental campaigns. Rather than lobbying for Congressional legislation, this coalition sued five major electric utilities and the Tennessee Valley Authority in 2004, claiming that their emissions constituted a public nuisance and, therefore, should be regulated by the courts under federal common law. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, bringing national attention to this environmental campaign and issue.
This week, however, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the defendants in American Electric Power v. Connecticut. The Court stated that it was the responsibility of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as charged under the Clean Air Act to regulate US carbon emissions, not that of the courts. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued, "Congress set up the EPA to promulgate standards for emissions, and the relief you're seeking seems to me to set up a district judge, who does not have the resources, the expertise, as a kind of super EPA."
While undoubtedly a setback for those who desire real reductions in U.S. carbon emissions, this case may still have a silver lining. By highlighting the responsibility of the EPA to set standards for carbon emissions, the Court has placed renewed pressure on the EPA to take meaningful action on climate change. The Court’s decision has also clarified the stakes for all concerned. As long as Congress refuses to address climate change through new legislative solutions, the EPA will remain the only national policymaking body in the United States with the ability to tackle the problem. Efforts to impede or constrain EPA’s regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act now seem doubly dangerous.
Read the Court’s official decision in American Electric Power v. Connecticut.