Supreme Court Rejects 'Nuisance' Argument Against Plant Emissions

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

The U.S. Supreme Court today rejected the argument that large utility companies can be sued to force them to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions because those emissions constitute a threat to society. In an 8-0 ruling, the high court said that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has that authority under existing federal laws and that "there is no room for a parallel track" for a lawsuit alleging a common law violation.

The case, American Electric Power v. Connecticut, was brought in 2004 by several states and conservation groups against five utility companies whose fossil-fuel power plants generate 10% of U.S. emissions from such sources. A district court had dismissed the suit as addressing political questions but an appellate court ruled that that question was not settled and that the plaintiffs had standing under a common law, which held the pollutants constituted a nuisance to society.

There was speculation that the Supreme Court might split on the issue because in previous rulings it had supported the "nuisance" argument. But today's opinion, delivered by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was joined in full by five other justices and in part by justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. Justice Sonia Sotomayor recused herself because she sat on an appeals court that had heard one of the previous suits from which this case was drawn.

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