On June 20, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion on American Electric Power Co., Inc., et al. v. Connecticut, et al. 

This case is significant because it dismissed a lawsuit in which several states and environmental groups sought court orders requiring large electrical utilities (alleged to be “the five largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the United States”) to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions because the emissions were alleged to be a public nuisance.  Plaintiffs alleged that the emissions violated federal common law (nuisance) or state tort law.  The plaintiffs were thereby requesting a court decree setting a cap for C02 emissions to be reduced annually.

The Supreme Court in a fairly short opinion touched upon a number of significant issues. The Court first dealt with the issue of jurisdiction and then with the issue of whether there is a federal common law cause of action of nuisance.  The Court split on the issue of whether the plaintiffs had Article III standing, i.e., whether there was sufficient specific injury to the plaintiffs such that the Article III Claims and Controversies requirement would be met, allowing the plaintiffs to avail themselves of the jurisdiction of the federal court system. Half of the Court believes that there was no standing, the other believes (assuming the prior cases are an indication) that some of the plaintiffs (the states) had sufficient standing that the case could be brought. This issue was addressed in the Massachusetts v. EPA case in which the Court held that greenhouse gases were regulated under the Clean Air Act. In that case the state of Massachusetts was found to have had sufficient standing to allow the case to be heard. 

The Court held that the federal common law nuisance which had been recognized in several interstate environmental cases was displaced by the statute even absent the setting of emission standards (EPA’s CO2 regulations are due in May 2012.)  The Court also indicated that the agency should be allowed to act first, before the judiciary, as the expert agency is better equipped to do the job then the judiciary who typically lack the economic technological resources to cope with these issues. Plaintiffs’ proposal to have federal judges determine these emission limits in the first instance could not be reconciled with the statute. 

Finally, the Court did not reach the issue of the viability of the state nuisance claims because they had been dropped by the lower courts when they held that the federal common law governed over state law.  Because there was no briefing on the state law preemption issue, the issue was left for consideration on remand. The Court did indicate that the issue of whether there was preemption of the federal common law by federal legislation, as in this case, did not require “the same sort of evidence of a clear and manifest (congressional) purpose” required for preemption of state law. (Citing City Milwaukee II 451 U.S. at 304, 317 (1981)).

This decision, while sending the case back to the lower courts, raises several unresolved issues. Will the courts continue to allow plaintiffs, particularly non-states such as the industry groups in the Massachusetts case, and the environmental groups in this case, Article III standing where there is an argument that no specific injuries have been pled? Will the courts find that state common law claims are also pre-empted by the federal Clean Air Act? Will this theory of agency primacy be applied at other levels? What happens if the EPA or Congress decides not to issue greenhouse gas regulations?   We’ll be continuing to monitor the case as it works its way back through the lower courts—stay tuned for updates.