Has The Bell Tolled For GHG Public Nuisance Litigation? The United States Government Thinks So

I have previously expressed my distaste for public nuisance litigation to require reductions in GHG emissions. It cannot be more than a tactic in a war to the plaintiffs, because the chaos resulting from regulation of a global problem through a series of individual law suits has to be obvious to everyone. Now, apparently, that chaos is also obvious to the Obama administration, because it has filed a brief with the Supreme Court, asking the Court to accept a certiorari petition filed by the defendants in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, the 2nd Circuit case in which the Court of Appeals held that the nuisance claims could proceed. 

The United States cited two reasons why the government should take the case and vacate the appellate decision. First, the brief states that the petitioners failed to demonstrate “prudential standing.” In other words, while they may have Article III standing, federal courts should “refrain from adjudicating ‘generalized grievances more appropriately addressed in the representative branches.’” As the brief notes:

The problem is not simply that many plaintiffs could bring such claims and that many defendants could be sued. Rather, it is that essentially any potential plaintiff could claim to have been injured by any (or all) of the potential defendants. The medium that transmits injury to potential plaintiffs is literally the Earth’s entire atmosphere – making it impossible to consider the sort of focused and more geographically limited effects characteristic of traditional nuisance suits….

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the administration has argued that EPA’s recent regulatory efforts with respect to GHG, including the mobile source rule and the PSD / Title V rules for stationary sources – which occurred after the 2nd Circuit decision – have “displaced” federal nuisance law. Since the Second Circuit specifically addressed the displacement argument and found for the plaintiffs in part precisely because EPA had not yet regulated GHG, EPA’s intervening regulatory actions certainly would seem to provide a basis for remanding the 2nd Circuit decision. I think that’s an easy call for the Supreme Court to make.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the plaintiffs’ attorneys were dismayed by the filing of the brief.  According to GreenWire, Matt Pawa, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said that:

We feel stabbed in the back. This was really a dastardly move by an administration that said it was a friend of the environment. With friends like this, who needs enemies?"

My take is a little different. Why don’t the plaintiffs’ attorneys thank the administration for promulgating the various GHG regulations, admit that the nuisance cases were a tactic to move Congress and the administration, claim a partial victory, because they at least got EPA moving, fold up their tents, and go home.

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