Attorneys General sue five big electric utilities

by William Yeatman on July 20, 2004

in Politics

The Attorneys General of California, Connecticut, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, and Wisconsin, and the Corporation Counsel of New York City filed a complaint July 21 in federal district court in Manhattan that alleges that five leading electric power generators had created a public nuisance by emitting carbon dioxide and thereby contributing to global warming. 

The taxpayer-financed lawyers are not seeking monetary damages but rather an abatement order requiring the utilities to reduce their emissions.  Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said at a press conference that their aim was to, Save our planet from disastrous consequences that are building year by year and will be more costly to prevent and stop if we wait.  Mr. Blumenthal also told reporters to, Think tobacco, without the money.

The complaint alleges that the States are suffering and will suffer damage from global warming in the form of heat-related deaths, sea-level rise, injuries to water supplies, injuries to the Great Lakes, injuries to agriculture in Iowa and Wisconsin, injuries to ecosystems, forests, fisheries and wildlife, wildfires in California, economic damages, increased risk of abrupt climate change, and, Injury to States Interests in Ecological Integrity.

The companies targeted are American Electric Power Co., Southern Co., Xcel Energy Inc., Cinergy Corp., and the federal Tennessee Valley Authority.  The complaint uses various statements and admissions by these companies that global warming is a problem that they want to do something about as proof that they manage and control the emission of carbon dioxide.

Only Xcel through its subsidiary Northern States Power of Wisconsin provides electricity to customers in any of the States that have filed suit.  Perhaps recognizing that they are on tenuous legal ground with their federal complaint, the complaint also includes specific complaints for each state, making the litigation a complex matter.

Initial reaction to the lawsuit has not been favorable beyond radical environmental groups.  Even some supporters of action to curb carbon dioxide emissions criticized the suit.  Eileen Claussen, the president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, told the New York Times (July 22) that she found the suit, Slightly perverse.  Of course, we need a national program and of course, we need some legislation.  The real question is, does this help you get there?  It’s not clear to me that this lawsuit will help.

Initial response from newspapers was also unenthusiastic.  The San Jose Mercury News (July 22) called the complaint a cheap shot and noted, Generation by a public utility is about as regulated as an activity can be.  Utilities are not only permitted to produce electricity, they’re also obligated to.  So any ill effects from an operation that has been approved from the local to the federal level can’t be laid at the feet of the utilities alone.

The Cincinnati Post (July 22) was equally unimpressed.  It satirized Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynchs statement that, It’s imperative that we confront those responsible for unleashing an invader with the power to wreak unspeakable havoc on our climate and to damage, and destroy, our ecosystems as follows: Good golly.  If fossil-fueled power plants are that much of a public nuisance, maybe we’d better shut them down right now.  That might reduce Rhode Islanders to living off whatever fish they can catch with a net, but it would take care of that invader.

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