This Administration Does Nuance: The US Files Its Brief in the American Electric Power Case

This week, the United States filed its brief in American Electric Power v. Connecticut. The brief is a nicely nuanced and persuasive argument for dismissal of plaintiffs’ public nuisance claims against five large power generators. The brief is nuanced in that it acknowledges that plaintiffs have Article III standing – allowing the Court to avoid reaching a constitutional standing issue – and provides a vehicle for the Court to avoid reaching the political question doctrine issue.

Instead, the brief makes two fairly simply points – and makes them convincingly. First, the brief argues that plaintiffs’ lack “prudential standing,” because their complaint raises “generalized grievances more appropriately addressed in the representative branches.” As the brief notes:

Global climate change will potentially affect the property interests of most landowners. And the effects of climate change will not be limited to landowners; they will also be felt by individuals, corporations, and governmental entities throughout the Nation and around the world. … The problem is not simply that many plaintiffs could bring such claims and that many defendants could be sued. It is also that essentially any potential plaintiff could claim to have been injured by any (or all) of the potential defendants.

A court – when no statute or regulation is in place to provide guidance – is simply not well-suited to balance the various interests of, and the burdens reasonably and fairly to be borne by, the many entities, groups, and sectors of the economy that, although not parties to the litigation, are affected by a phenomenon that spans the globe.

The brief is even more convincing in demonstrating that the common law claims have been displaced by the regulatory actions that EPA has taken under the Clean Air Act since Massachusetts v. EPA.   Specifically, it doesn’t matter that EPA’s regulation doesn’t do what the plaintiffs are seeking in the litigation:

Although EPA has not yet done precisely what plaintiffs demand here…, that is not the relevant test. … The question is whether the field has been occupied, not whether it has been occupied in a particular manner.

Moreover, and this is the crux of the displacement argument, the brief notes that:

Plaintiffs’ attempt to secure court-ordered emissions reductions from emitters of their choosing on their own schedule would be plainly inconsistent with EPA’s systematic, phased approach.

Interestingly, the brief makes the point that:

Displacement also occurs when an agency, whose comprehensive statutory authority to regulate the subject matter has been triggered, decides to postpone or even forgo the imposition of regulatory standards, where the decision is made through the exercise of that authority on the basis of a weighing of relevant considerations under the statutory scheme. [My emphasis.]

This is one issue that could come back to haunt both the government and global warming skeptics in Congress. As you will probably infer from my description of the brief, I expect the United States to win this case. However, while the prudential standing issue is persuasive, I think that the displacement is much the stronger argument – but only because EPA has in fact done something about GHG. What’s notable about the language in the brief is that, even if EPA were to make a formal decision to postpone GHG regulation under the CAA, such an decision would justify continued displacement of public nuisance claims, under the theory of the government’s brief. On the other hand, if Congress were to amend the CAA to preclude EPA regulations – and unless the legislation specifically precluded nuisance claims as well – such action would then revive the potential for nuisance claims, which is probably the last outcome that power generators would want to see.

As I have said before on this issue, be careful what you wish for.

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