WASHINGTON — The fight over global warming and whether to limit carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants must be resolved by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Supreme Court said, killing a suit in federal court brought against the nation's five largest electric power companies.
The 8-0 decision Monday was a setback — but not a surprise — for environmentalists. The outcome puts more pressure on the Obama administration and the EPA to follow through with promises to propose new regulations in the fall that will restrict carbon pollution from power plants.
The EPA under President Obama has already adopted stricter new emissions standards for cars and trucks. However, the Republican-led House has voiced opposition to new regulations that would affect energy producers.
Eight states had filed suit against Midwest and Southern power producers based on the old doctrine that a state or a private party could file a "public nuisance" suit against another party for polluting its air or water.
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In throwing out the "nuisance" suit, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it poses a classic "who decides" question. In this instance, she said, it is clear that environmental policy should be decided by the EPA, not by a single federal judge overseeing a legal dispute.
The U.S. appeals court in New York had allowed the global warming suit to go forward because the government had not adopted limits on carbon pollution from power plants.
In explaining why the suit must end, Ginsburg pointed out that the court in 2007 had ruled that the EPA had the authority to regulate greenhouses gases under the Clean Air Act. That decision undercut the need for a separate lawsuit dealing with the same problem, she said.
"The EPA is currently engaged in a rulemaking to decide whether the agency should set limits on emissions from domestic power plants. The Clean Air Act, in our judgment, leaves no room for a parallel track" which would call upon a judge to decide on the need for regulations, she said.
Peter Keisler, the former Justice Department lawyer who represented power companies, said the ruling permits the companies to continue to "provide vital services to the public ... without the threat of federal 'climate change tort litigation.' "
David Doniger, a climate change expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the ruling "puts a spotlight on EPA and makes it more important that the EPA act."
All the justices joined Ginsburg's opinion in American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, except Sonia Sotomayor. She was on the appeals court in New York that decided the matter earlier. Ginsburg noted that the ruling does not prevent the lawyers who brought the case in federal court from trying again in state courts.
Originally, the suit spoke for eight states. They included Iowa, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin. More recently, New Jersey and Wisconsin backed away after Republican governors took office.