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SCOTUS: Clean Air Act Trumps Emissions Lawsuits 303

Posted by Soulskill
from the laying-down-the-law dept.
schwit1 writes "The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a global warming lawsuit against five big power companies, its most important environmental ruling since 2007 and a victory for the utilities and the Obama administration. The justices unanimously overturned a ruling by a US appeals court that the lawsuit now involving six states can proceed in an effort to force the coal-burning plants to cut emissions of gases that contribute to climate change. In a defeat for environmentalists, the Supreme Court agreed with the companies that regulating greenhouse gases should be left to the Environmental Protection Agency under the clean air laws. The ruling stemmed from a 2004 lawsuit claiming the five electric utilities have created a public nuisance by contributing to climate change. The lawsuit wanted a federal judge to order them to cut their carbon dioxide emissions."
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SCOTUS: Clean Air Act Trumps Emissions Lawsuits

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  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Monday June 20, 2011 @04:29PM (#36505396)

    Supreme Court agreed with the companies that regulating greenhouse gases should be left to the Environmental Protection Agency

    Yes, and I'm sure they're going to start doing that any day now.

    • Re:Yes, the EPA (Score:5, Informative)

      by jhoger (519683) on Monday June 20, 2011 @04:39PM (#36505506) Homepage

      The complainants were smacked down unanimously simply because suing the power companies is the wrong target. They are free to sue EPA once it hands down regs, and SCOTUS made this clear. I'm not sure why they thought anything different would happen here.

      • The complainants were smacked down unanimously simply because suing the power companies is the wrong target.

        Wait what? Suing the people polluting and causing the problem is the wrong target and they should be suing the government agency that has not had the power to do anything yet? How does that make any sense? Regardless of if it is illegal to use asbestos in buildings, citizens should still have the right to sue companies that sell it to builders and willfully ignore the scientific evidence of its harmful effects. Likewise citizen should still be able to sue power companies for poisoning them and causing damag

        • Re:Yes, the EPA (Score:5, Interesting)

          by RazzleFrog (537054) on Monday June 20, 2011 @04:52PM (#36505652)

          Releasing CO2 isn't illegal as long as it falls within current regulations. Suing the power companies is like me suing smokers (who are smoking in legal places).

          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            Releasing CO2 isn't illegal as long as it falls within current regulations. Suing the power companies is like me suing smokers (who are smoking in legal places).

            Sure, that's a fine analogy. Say you're in one of the few counties that still allows smoking in jail cells. Say you have severe asthma and the guy in the next cell is smoking. You tell him about the condition and ask him to stop and he tells you to fuck off and that it's legal and he doesn't care if it harms you. Yeah, you should absofuckinglutely have the right to sue him. That's what lawsuits are for, resolving conflicts where a crime is not being committed, but where the rights of two people or corporati

            • Unfortunately, if its legal to smoke in the jail cell you would lose.

              • by MobyDisk (75490)

                Not so. Civil suits are not bound by whether or not the activity is legal. They are bound by the ability to prove damages. It is legal to throw rocks, but if you damage my car when doing so I can sue you for the damage.

                • by idontgno (624372)

                  Unless, of course, there's a standing federal law in place which proclaims that it has highest precedence (per the Supremacy Clause), and that smoking is not harmful for all purposes under the law... So, obviously, you can't sue for any damage, because under the controlling law, smoking is incapable of causing damage.

                  Analogies suck. Nonetheless, in US environmental law, a substance widely held to be a pollutant is not, in legal fact, a pollutant until the EPA blesses it thus. So you can no more sue a utilit

            • In very many places the law disallows suits over things. We don't need thousands of suits clogging up the courts over issues that have already been decided by law or already have an alternate legal venue prescribed by law.

              People who bring such suits need to be punished for abuse of the court system.

        • by cirby (2599)

          Wait what? Suing the people polluting and causing the problem is the wrong target and they should be suing the government agency that has not had the power to do anything yet?

          Except that they have, since the 2007 case.

          The EPA issued a ruling in 2009 which says so explicitly, listing CO2 with several other gases which could be considered pollutants because of potential greenhouse effects.

        • by gman003 (1693318)
          The problem with your logic is that it doesn't make sense to have the power companies regulate their own emissions, which is actually what you're arguing for (albeit in a roundabout way, by having them sued anytime they break some undefined limit). Think about it this way - if you argue that you can sue the power company for failing to not cause climate change, then you are implicitly stating that the power companies are responsible for regulating climate-change-causing things. It makes far more sense, lega
      • Re:Yes, the EPA (Score:4, Insightful)

        by blair1q (305137) on Monday June 20, 2011 @05:03PM (#36505746) Journal

        I haven't read the law that created the EPA, but,

        Either the plaintiffs didn't read that law and it clearly states that anyone is exempt from being sued as long as they follow EPA regs, or the Supreme Court inferred that anyone who follows EPA regs is indemnified but it doesn't actually say that in the law.

        With woo-woo plaintiffs and a classic Alice-in-Wonderland Supreme Court, I give it a 50-50 shot that it went either way.

        Except that this was a unanimous decision, and I know at least 3 of these justices know enough to read the law before voting on it.

      • by TheSpoom (715771)

        In other words, you can punish someone, as long as it's ultimately yourself.

    • by h00manist (800926) on Monday June 20, 2011 @04:39PM (#36505516) Journal

      It would be nice if technology evolves so you could generate your own power easily, perhaps with a few neighbors - and not pay or support any company at all.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by PIBM (588930)

        The most commonly found here are:

        Wind power
        Hydro power
        Solar power

        Depending on where you live, scratch some off, pick one of the remaining.

        • by h00manist (800926)

          I wonder how many kWH can people manage to produce at home with today's technologies.

          • by peragrin (659227)

            about 1-2 KWH if your lucky depending on location of course.

            Solar can never be more than 50% efficient(sun shines for ever more than 12 hours in the majority of the USA

            Wind runs about 25% efficient over a year(wind blows only so much

            Hydro requires destroying thousand of acres of usually good land to create enough water pressure to function best.(Most of the natural ones are all ready being tapped )

            I have looked into it over and over again. without a decent home sized electrical storage system that doesn't

            • by Grishnakh (216268)

              Solar and wind may not be good total replacements for a connection to your local electric power utility, but they can be very good supplements if the price is right. For instance, if you live in the southern states and use a lot of A/C, you need much more power in the daytime than at night; not coincidentally, solar arrays provide all their power in the daytime. If your utility charges you different rates at different times of day, then this can be a great way of keeping your house cool in the daytime wit

              • by peragrin (659227)

                except unless your in a very very new small house you won't cover 1/4 of your AC bill. It has to be new, as then it was built with better thermal design, and insulation. NOw to assist your AC as well you can due a geothermal circulation system on top of the Solar your power bill goes up slightly but it should be offset by the A/C not working quite as hard.

        • by amiga3D (567632)

          Can't build more Dams, the greenies wont allow it. I like the idea of Solar, as soon as I come up with 30grand I'm off the grid.

          • by marnues (906739)
            Hopefully the people whose land the dam would destroy don't want the hydroplant either. Reverse NIMBY is a common target for us "greenies".
          • Or you lease the system through SolarCity, and pay your same monthly electric bill that covers the cost of your installed system. Very little to no upfront investment. Google just kicked $280 million into SolarCity for financing this sort of arrangement.

    • Re:Yes, the EPA (Score:4, Insightful)

      by RazzleFrog (537054) on Monday June 20, 2011 @04:43PM (#36505556)

      Right or wrong - the courts shouldn't be making laws - that's congress's job.

      • by blair1q (305137)

        If the coal industry doesn't follow the law, it doesn't matter who makes them.

        And the coal industry is notorious for ignoring the law in brazen and voluminous manner [google.com].

      • by amiga3D (567632)

        hehe....I think that's what the Supremes said there. EPA is legislated by congress to manage the situation. Whether they do it or not.....

        • Well in 2009 the EPA released a report saying - this stuff is really f-ing up the place so Congress you either create some legislation or we'll use the powers you granted to us under the Clean Air Act to regulate it ourselves.

          Now if the EPA regulates it themselves then there is a chance that somebody will contest whether the Clean Air Act actually gives them that authority and if they lose then the EPA is even more toothless than it is now. If on the other hand Congress passes a law it has a better show of

    • by Artagel (114272)
      The regulatory processes grind exceedingly slowly. If EPA rushes something, it opens itself to having its justifications found to lack substantial evidence. Also, if it proposes rules that are too strict, it could goose Congress into taking the matter off of EPA's plate. Also, if you are Obama, this is something for your second term. Doing something fast that turns out to be unpopular could be his undoing. So I expect the Notice to be released mid-November, 2012.
      • by Grishnakh (216268)

        Also, if you are Obama, this is something for your second term. Doing something fast that turns out to be unpopular could be his undoing. So I expect the Notice to be released mid-November, 2012.

        So far, I haven't seen Obama do much to make himself popular. The righties all hate him just because he's not a Republican, and his own base isn't too happy with him because he turned into Bush-lite as soon as he got elected. The Dem voters seem to be split between those who are pissed at him because he lied to th

      • Because starting wars, operating with zero transparency, hiring lobbyists, having administrations officials quit to become lobbyists, schmoozing with lobbyists, supporting all manner of civil rights abuses, reaffirming the PATRIOT act, and just generally doing exactly what the Bush administration did, isn't 'undoing' him.
  • Well well... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CCarrot (1562079) on Monday June 20, 2011 @04:40PM (#36505530)

    ...sometimes they actually get it right. Sort of.
    Go figure.

    Now if they could only figure out that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, and therefore does not fall under the Clean Air Act either...

    • Re:Well well... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by matty619 (630957) on Monday June 20, 2011 @05:07PM (#36505806)

      Now if they could only figure out that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, and therefore does not fall under the Clean Air Act either...

      Well, anything is a pollutant in high enough quantities, but sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. The climate WILL change. If not from AWG, then from something else. Perhaps a meteor strike, or a massive volcano, or decreased/increased solar activity. Better to focus on creating an upwardly mobile society that can more easily adapt to these inevitable changes than to risk making society poorer and therefore less able to adapt. Within reason of course. Not to advocate for slash and burn in the name of economic expansion, but we're not ready to run our economies on windmills and horse manure yet.

      • by CCarrot (1562079)

        The climate WILL change... Better to focus on creating an upwardly mobile society that can more easily adapt to these inevitable changes than to risk making society poorer and therefore less able to adapt.

        It's nice to hear a voice of reason on these boards every so often ;)

        If only we could stop making our kids neurotic about how much carbon daddy's lawn mower is emitting, and get back to making them neurotic about how many starving kids that leftover meatloaf mommy just threw out could have fed...at least the starving kids is a real, tangible (and heartbreaking) issue.

        • by marnues (906739)
          No, the crappy motor in the lawn mower is real and tangible. It's not heartbreaking though, the strawman is quite sad. Starving Ethiopians are not tangible.
          • by CCarrot (1562079)

            No, the crappy motor in the lawn mower is real and tangible. It's not heartbreaking though, the strawman is quite sad. Starving Ethiopians are not tangible.

            Actually, I bet they are very tangible*. [reference.com] They're just not sitting right beside you, so it's harder to get worked up about them and therefore harder to get the kids involved in fundraising for them. Whereas that lawn mower is breaking the planet, so mommy and daddy should absolutely go out and buy an eco-certified one right now. And by the way, kids, here's a handy list of eco-friendly lawn equipment suppliers to show your parents...

            *I do not think that word means what you think it means...

        • by Rei (128717)

          How is that reasonable? Yes, we *could* get struck by a meteor. But the odds of that happening any time soon are extremely small. Meteors big enough to cause large local or global extinction events are on the order of once every several tens of millions of years. Equivalently devastating volcanic disasters are more common, but not *that* much more common. Stars are generally amazingly stable until they near their death (I'd be happy to dig up some papers for you on this if you'd like), with interdecada

      • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

        Now if they could only figure out that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, and therefore does not fall under the Clean Air Act either...

        Well, anything is a pollutant in high enough quantities, but sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. The climate WILL change. If not from AWG, then from something else. Perhaps a meteor strike, or a massive volcano, or decreased/increased solar activity. Better to focus on creating an upwardly mobile society that can more easily adapt to these inevitable changes than to risk making society poorer and therefore less able to adapt. Within reason of course. Not to advocate for slash and burn in the name of economic expansion, but we're not ready to run our economies on windmills and horse manure yet.

        Sure, and the human race could go completely batshit insane and commit mass suicide. Why don't you test this theory first on yourself?

  • by SirGarlon (845873) on Monday June 20, 2011 @04:48PM (#36505612)

    This is an interesting ruling to me in that it is more about the balance of power between the three branches of government than it is about the subject of the lawsuit, greenhouse gases in this case.

    It has become fairly common for activists to seek court orders to impose their pet issues rather than go through the incredibly slow sausage-making process of legislative reform. This ruling is a smackdown from the Supreme Court saying "no, you six states cannot get a judge to rewrite environmental policy for you. If you want a policy change, you have to do it the old-fashioned way, by getting Congress to tell the EPA what to do. That's why you states have representatives in Congress in the first place."

    Regardless of how one feels about CO2 emissions regulation, I think it is none the less a Good Thing that SCOTUS has blocked off this back channel to overriding the normal policy-making process. It's not a sweeping ruling but it is a precedent. Also interesting is that here we have a clear case of the judiciary ruling to limit the power of ... the judiciary. Kind of. How often do you see something like that?

    • by RazzleFrog (537054) on Monday June 20, 2011 @04:54PM (#36505664)

      Well said. Some people may react strongly because it is something they believe in but we never want to let the court system override the legislative process because next time it might not be something that we all like so much.

      • by artor3 (1344997)

        Of course, this is the same court that brought us such wonderful decisions as Citizens United. They're quite happy to override the legislative system whenever it suits them.

        • The same court that upheld the freedom of speech instead of the freedom to censor?

          Not seeing an issue, other than they continue to make wise choices. And in the case of the decision mentioned in the article , the choice was unanimous...

    • It's not a sweeping ruling but it is a precedent. Also interesting is that here we have a clear case of the judiciary ruling to limit the power of ... the judiciary. Kind of. How often do you see something like that?

      It's not a precedent, nor is it particularly new. The Supreme Court has been handing issues back to the Legislative Branch for decades. For just one example, that's why nobody has sued any of the major sports leagues for monopolistic practices since (IIRC) the 50's... It was tried multiple tim

    • by marnues (906739)
      This is true, but I think the spin is incorrect. I'm part of an organization that has worked with this lawsuit in the past and the entire point was that Congress's answer has been "The EPA is responsible", and the EPA's retort is "we don't have the power". This lawsuit was a win-semi-win for us as we have removed one of the branches from the equation. I believe the next action _is_ suing the EPA with the precedent that this is their job firmly established.
    • This ruling is a smackdown from the Supreme Court saying "no, you six states cannot get a judge to rewrite environmental policy for you."

      It is well within the domain of the judiciary to award compensation for damages from any source, including pollution. That judicial authority is not something Congress can overrule, short of a Constitutional amendment. It does not equate to "legislating from the bench"; if anything, by claiming that following EPA regulations renders companies immune to civil suits regarding pollution, Congress is usurping the role which properly belongs to the courts.

      Of course, to win such a case the states would need to sh

  • The ruling states that the CAA "displaces" the plaintiff's rights to sue. Meaning that now, we all have fewer rights to sue under the common law, even if the emitters are unequivocally imposing on our rights, such as that to clean air. And this could be applied elsewhere, including, say, contaminated drugs, if SCOTUS were to find the federal law had "displaced" our common law rights.

    I find that limiting, not empowering.

  • This is an odd ruling. Where does it state in the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Amendments, or any other federal documents that the federal government has sole authority over environmental protection? Surely this can't be considered interstate commerce since we're talking about individual states.

    I'm not a believer of man made global warming so I have mixed emotions on this. States should be able to set stricter laws and regulations on activities within their border as they see fit. It shouldn't matter i

    • by artor3 (1344997)

      The United States is not a country of the masses.

      See what you did there? "The United States is". People used to write "These United States are". They haven't done so in a long time, because the US has been a de facto single entity for over a century. And that's a good thing. We need a central government with the strength to compete in an increasingly connected world. Even in the status quo, we are overwhelmed by the power of corporations. Our nation would be a 2nd world joke if we were to be dragged back to the 19th century way of doing things.

      • Well, in the 19th century the price of oil dropped by 80% and the U.S. when from a bankrupt, third-world nation to the largest manufacturer on Earth. I would sure hate to live in a world like that.
    • by marnues (906739)
      Pollution has been extensively documented to cross state lines. Of course this is an interstate commerce issue. I'm surprised this comment needs to be stated.
  • by MobyDisk (75490) on Monday June 20, 2011 @05:29PM (#36506042) Homepage

    I am confused by the article. It could mean one of two very different things:

    1) The states passed laws requiring the corporations to cut their emissions even further than what the EPA required. The companies did not comply so the states sued. The Supreme Court ruled that the state laws do not trump the federal law, so they cannot be enforced.

    -- OR --

    2) The states sued the companies for damages, even though the companies complied with the federal law.

    The implications are very different. The first one would surprise me: it seems like a states rights issue. States often times impose local environmental restrictions that may be beyond the federal requirements. If it was the latter, then I am not surprised. This happens all the time with anything where there is any form of regulation or standard practice. If the entity is following the regulation or best practice, they are generally immune from suits. Ex: Suppose a boat captain requires everyone to wear a life jacket, properly maintains the boat according to all the rules, has coast guard inspections, training, certificates, etc.... the captain is probably not liable if the boat catches fire and kills someone . Often times the regulatory body gets sued instead. In the above example, the coast guard may be sued for having lax rules.

    • by canajin56 (660655) on Monday June 20, 2011 @06:37PM (#36506736)
      It's number two. The states were suing companies over power plants operated OUTSIDE those states, even though those companies were complying with state and federal laws. The states were arguing that producing CO2 is a "public nuisance" and trying to get them to reduce emissions across the entire country, not just within their own borders. The supreme court ruled that that's the EPA's job, and that if they are not satisfied with the EPA's rules (not yet released) then there are legal channels in place to appeal those rules. They are just still under review and so cannot be appealed until they exist.
  • The energy industry paid good money to neuter the Environmental Protection Agency. You can't just come in here and try to use the judicial system as a venue for the redress of grievances against the federal government. Oh..., wait.
  • by Lehk228 (705449) on Monday June 20, 2011 @06:44PM (#36506820) Journal
    enacting "laws" via states suing in federal court would be horrible public policy, it would create an (even more) unaccountable secondary legislature and signing committee made up of the states attorneys general and the SCOTUS

    this is not the way laws and rules are supposed to be made.

    I strongly agree with regulating CO2 emissions but it must be done in a constitutionally proper manner or the whole thing lacks legitimacy

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