Connecticut v. AEP Decision Supports Public Nuisance Actions Aimed at GHGs

Posted on October 23, 2009 by Gregory Sharp

In Connecticut v. AEP, the Second Circuit upheld the right of state and municipal governments and private land preservation groups to pursue public nuisance claims against electric generating facilities with significant greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), including those operated by TVA,. The plaintiffs alleged that facilities operated by five of the six defendants were the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the country and among the largest in the world.

 

A recent ACOEL blog by Bob Wyman and Mike Romey touched on the decision in the context of the similar issues raised in the Fifth Circuit’s Comer decision and the Northern District of California’s decision in Kivalina. This blog will focus on some of the specific issues raised in the AEP decision.

 

 

 

The 139 page opinion exhaustively analyzes the numerous issues raised in the appeal, which was taken by the plaintiffs from a dismissal of their complaints by the District Court. The trial court held that the claims were non-justiciable as raising political questions.

The Second Circuit held that the district court erred in dismissing the complaints on political question grounds, that all of the plaintiffs have standing , that the federal common law of nuisance governs their claims, that plaintiffs have stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance, that the claims have not been displaced by Congressional action, and that the TVA’s alternate grounds for dismissal were without merit.

 

The decision turns in large part on the Supreme Court’s landmark “one man, one vote” decision in Baker v. Carr in 1962, which laid out six factors for determining when a complaint raises a non-justiciable political question based on the separation of powers doctrine.

 

One of the central issues was whether the federal common law was inapplicable because Congress had displaced common law rights through legislative action. On the displacement issue, the Second Circuit relied in part on Milwaukee I&II, noting that if Congress does not adopt statutes which cover a plaintiff’s claims and provide a remedy for them, then the plaintiff is free to bring its claims under the federal common law of nuisance. The Second Circuit concluded that Congress had not done so with respect to GHGs.

 

The Court concluded that all plaintiffs satisfied the injury in fact test for federal standing. The states alleged current injury from an increase in carbon dioxide levels that has caused rising temperatures and climate change resulting in reduced snowpack and related harms. The states also alleged future catastrophic injuries from continued increases in temperature, including a catastrophic change in climate when a tipping point is reached.

 

The land trusts alleged no current injury, but alleged future injuries and increased risk of harm. The Court found these injuries constitute “special injuries” to the land trust plaintiffs’ property interests, which are different in kind from injuries sustained by the general public.

In its conclusion, the Court found that, as to air pollution, and GHGs in particular, this case fits the same niche occupied by Milwaukee I with respect to water pollution. Paraphrasing the concluding words of Milwaukee I, the opinion notes: “’It may happen that new federal laws and new federal regulations may in time pre-empt the field of federal common law of nuisance. But until that comes to pass, federal courts will be empowered to appraise the equities of the suits alleging creation of a public nuisance’ by greenhouse gases.”

 

In an interesting footnote, the decision notes that Justice Sonia Sotomayor was originally a member of the panel, but was elevated to the Supreme Court in August, so the appeal was determined by the remaining two members of the panel.

 

As with the recent 5th Circuit decision in Comer, the decision can be expected to increase pressure on Congress to act to develop a comprehensive greenhouse gas emission regulatory program, unless the Supreme Court reverses before Congress acts.