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Supreme Court takes global warming case that targets power companies

A global warming lawsuit aiming to force power companies to curtail carbon emissions will come before the Supreme Court next year. The suit asks for a judicial order to that effect, but would such a move usurp role of other government branches?

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The complaint warns that continued unrestrained emission of greenhouse gases may cause “an abrupt and catastrophic change in the earth’s climate.” Among listed impacts are a reduction of California’s mountain snowpack, the state’s largest source of fresh water.

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The suit also complains that within 100 years, global warming will cause billion-dollar adverse impacts to the environment, residents, and property. These include prolonged heat waves, increased smog, beach erosion, inundation of coastal land with sea level rise, more droughts and floods, increased wildfires, and reduced biodiversity.

Twelve states filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the high court to take up the case and dismiss the lawsuit. They include Indiana, Arkansas, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, and Wyoming.

“The theory of liability being advanced here has no limiting principle,” Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher wrote in the 12-state brief. “It would permit federal courts to impose CO2 emission limits on any entity in the country, and one might reasonably expect that the major economic actors of each state, not to mention state government entities themselves, would be on a list of potential defendants.”

Mr. Fisher said that given widespread disagreement over the issue of greenhouse gas emissions, someone must make a policy determination. “That someone,” he said, “should not be the federal judiciary.”

The companies named in the suit include American Electric Power Co., American Electric Power Service Corp., Southern Company, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Xcel Energy, and Cinergy Corp.

The suit says the companies emit 650 tons per year of carbon dioxide, or roughly one-quarter of the US electric power sector’s carbon-dioxide emissions. The companies operate in 21 states and provide electricity to millions of customers.

The appeals court panel that reinstated the lawsuit initially included Judge Sonia Sotomayor – who later was elevated to the Supreme Court. As a result, she has recused herself from the case.

The case is American Electric Power Company v. State of Connecticut. It will be heard in the spring, with a decision expected by late June.

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