State Attorneys General sue utilities over global warming

by William Yeatman on August 31, 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 on July 21 in federal district court in Manhattan alleging that five leading electric power generators in the United States had created a “public nuisance” by emitting carbon dioxide and thereby contributing to global warming.  All but one of the officers who brought the suit are Democrats.

“Save Our Planet,” Say Lawyers

The government lawyers are not seeking monetary damages but rather an abatement ordera court order requiring the utilities to reduce their emissions.  Consequences for noncompliance would be fashioned by the court.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said at a press conference on July 21, that the litigants’ 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.”  Blumenthal also told reporters, “Think tobacco, without the money.”

The complaint alleges that the states and city that brought the suit are suffering and will continue to suffer damage from global warming in the form of heat-related deaths; rises in sea level; degradation of water supplies; damage to the Great Lakes; injuries to agriculture in Iowa and Wisconsin; harm 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 by the suit are American Electric Power Co., Southern Co., Xcel Energy Inc., Cinergy Corp., and the federal Tennessee Valley Authority.  As evidence that these firms manage and control the emission of carbon dioxide, the complaint uses various past statements and admissions by company spokespersons that global warming is a problem they want to do something about.

Only Xcel, through its subsidiary Northern States Power of Wisconsin, provides electricity to customers in any of the states that have filed suit.  To establish some legal grounds for their federal suit, the complaint includes specific complaints for each state.

Lawsuit Rebuffed by Usual Allies

Some supporters of action to curb carbon dioxide emissions have strongly criticized the suit.  Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, told The New York Times on July 22 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 on 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 on July 22 was equally unimpressed.  It satirized Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch’s 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.”

Depending on the duration and outcome of procedural matters, the district court can be expected to address the substance of the suit in late 2004 or in 2005.

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