Washington Environmentalists say they are surprised and disappointed that the Obama administration is urging the Supreme Court to kill a major global warming lawsuit that seeks new limits on carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants.
At issue is a deep dispute over how best to fight climate change: through new government rules only or through lawsuits against polluters.
Though the administration seeks new limits on carbon pollution from Congress or through the Environmental Protection Agency, it says courts should step aside. But some environmentalists call this one-track approach shortsighted and a mistake.
Environmentalists last year won a major victory in the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York in a global warming suit brought on behalf of eight states, including Connecticut and California. It sought new limits on greenhouse gases from power plants throughout the Midwest and South.
But late last month, the Obama administration joined the case on the side of the utilities and said the suit should be dismissed. The brief by Acting U.S. Solicitor Gen. Neal Katyal argued that the plaintiffs, including the states, do not have standing to sue and that global warming is suited to “political or regulatory — not judicial — resolution.”
Environmentalists say they were caught off guard.
“We were surprised and disappointed,” said David Hawkins, a climate change expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We thought this was unnecessary and uncalled for. They have adopted new rules for automobiles, but that leaves out more than two-thirds of the U.S. global warming pollution.”
The administration’s legal stand is consistent with President Obama’s view that Congress, not the courts, must decide the hard political questions. But some environmental advocates were outraged, since they see no prospect for major climate change legislation coming from Congress.
“With friends like this, who needs enemies?” said Matthew Pawa, the Boston environmental lawyer who is leading the suit against the power plants.
Three years ago, a lawsuit brought by 12 states, including California and Illinois, broke a logjam on global warming. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, rebuked the Bush administration for its go-slow policy on climate change and ruled that greenhouse gases could be regulated under the Clean Air Act. This decision cleared the way for new EPA rules that will limit emissions from motor vehicles.
The pending suit targeted the nation’s five largest producers of electric power. One of them is the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is run as a federal agency. Katyal entered the case in defense of TVA, but urged the Supreme Court to throw out the entire lawsuit.
The case has been closely watched as a test of whether producers of greenhouse gases can be sued.
Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute in Washington, said the utilities were pleased by the administration’s intervention. “We agree with them that the courts are not the right place for making environmental policy decisions,” he said.
The Supreme Court will not decide for several months whether to hear the case of American Electric Power Co. vs. Connecticut, or whether to follow Katyal’s advice to issue a summary ruling overturning the appeals court decision.