Important Decision; No Surprise — The Supreme Court Bars Federal Climate Change Nuisance Claims

Yesterday, the Supreme Court announced its decision in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, holding that EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act displaced federal common law nuisance claims. I have always thought that the displacement argument was correct, so the decision is not really a surprise (and the 8-0 decision and crisp opinion only confirm that view). The decision is nonetheless important and, notwithstanding a few limitations, rather sweeping.

The Court’s analysis was straightforward. The creation of federal common law by courts is “unusual” and

[W]hen Congress addresses a question previously governed by a decision rested on federal common law,” the “need for such an unusual exercise of law-making by federal courts disappears.”

Next, displacement of federal common law is not the same as preemption of state law, because there are no federalism issues. Thus, the test for displacement is “simply whether the statute ‘speak[s] directly to [the] question’ at issue.” Therefore, what EPA does in response to the congressional mandate is irrelevant to displacement. It is the CAA that matters. As the court noted, if EPA does not set emission limits, the CAA allows the plaintiffs to petition EPA to do so and EPA’s response to that petition is subject to judicial review. In short,

the relevant question for purposes of displacement is “whether the field has been occupied, not whether it has been occupied in a particular manner.”

The Court also provided a forceful argument for judicial restraint in these kinds of cases:

            It is altogether fitting that Congress designated an expert agency, here, EPA, as best suited to serve as primary regulator of greenhouse gas emissions. The expert agency is surely better equipped to do the job than individual district judges issuing ad hoc, case-by-case injunctions. Federal judges lack the scientific, economic, and technological resources an agency can utilize in coping with issues of this order.

The decision did not address whether these or other plaintiffs could bring actions under state nuisance law, but I would not put a lot of money on those cases succeeding. The decision also does not address cases such as Kivilina v. ExxonMobil, in which the plaintiffs do not seek regulation, but only damages. However, I’m skeptical about the survival of those cases as well.

The real question following yesterday’s decision is whether Republicans in Congress will read it carefully. Will they continue to press to eliminate EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases? Doing so would revive public nuisance suits, unless the legislation also barred federal courts from hearing such cases.

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