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Looking Back to 2010 and Forward to 2011 and Beyond - Perspectives and Predictions on Climate Change

J. Wylie Donald   By J. Wylie Donald, Partner, English & McCarter

Another year done, another time to look back and to look forward.  In the climate change space, the increasing tempo of regulation was halted, but that does not mean that there were not significant events.  We catalog a few with accompanying predictions of the future:

Without a doubt the big legal action this year will be the United States Supreme Court's decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power, where States and public interest organizations seek to vindicate their ability to sue on a "carbon dioxide as public nuisance" theory.  One should expect the Ninth Circuit to hold off any decision in Kivalina v. ExxonMobil until after the Supremes render their decision.  And climate change plaintiffs will husband their resources until the lay of the legal landscape is clear before filing any new suits.  Our crystal ball, however, also hints that clarity may not be forthcoming.  Justice Sotomayor has recused herself - there may be effectively no decision if the Court comes out 4-4.

Hand-in-hand with climate change liability lawsuits goes climate change liability insurance coverage.  That too is being litigated at an ultimate appellate venue.  In Steadfast Insurance Co. v. The AES Corp., the Virginia Supreme Court will consider whether for the purposes of the duty to defend, an occurrence is alleged in Kivalina.  Although Virginia is not the most popular of coverage litigation venues, that Steadfast is the first climate change coverage case ensures that the decision will be significant.

While these are heady times for courts and litigators, those ready for the legislative "fix" for climate change will not find succor in 2011.  Cap-and-trade advocates became quieter and quieter in the days leading up to the November 2010 mid-term elections.  We win no points for our prescience when we predict that there will be no new federal legislation regulating carbon dioxide emissions in the coming year.

Quieter even than domestic cap-and-trade supporters are those in favor of some international regime.  COP 16 in Cancun achieved very little.  It established a $100 billion Green Climate Fund, without any provisions to fund it.  It did not extend the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.  And China and the United States (the two largest greenhouse gas emitters) are still not part of any global climate change plan.  COP 17 takes place in Durban, South Africa at the end of next year.  With an American presidential race beginning, it is hard to imagine the Administration will butt heads with its Republican adversaries on anything contentious or innovative proposed at Durban.

Even if legislation is going nowhere, that does not mean the administrative agencies will be quiet.  The FTC Green Guides have proposed revisions to address carbon neutrality and renewable energy claims.  Expect the proposals to be acted on in 2011.  The SEC's guidance on climate change disclosure surfaced in February 2010.  The guidance specifically requires analysis of domestic and international regulation.  In light of the shift in the climate-change-regulation pendulum, it will be interesting to see if any reporting company states that it expects less restrictions, rather than more restrictions.  And of course USEPA's greenhouse gas reporting rules required the first set of data to be turned in at the end of 2010, which undoubtedly will initiate further regulatory rules.

Private parties will go where the money is, which will continue to be in heavily subsidized renewable programs.  Will the Republican Congress recognize the market dislocations engendered by these subsidies and cut them? Or will different influences like jobs or constituents continue to make their presence felt?  If the December enactment of the Tax Relief Act (which provided an extension of the 30% tax grant for renewable projects) is any guide, if a project can be supported with a tax subsidy, rather than a government payment, it will continue.

And what can we say about the weather?  2010 was an above average hurricane year, but fortunately for the United States, damage was minimal.  The hurricane experts at Colorado State University predict an equally busy year for 2011.  Pay up those premiums.  Best for the New Year!


J. Wylie Donald is a partner of McCarter & English LLP counsels and litigates for clients on insurance coverage, environmental and products liability matters. Mr. Donald co-chairs the firm's Climate Change and Renewable Energy Practice. He draws on his substantial environmental experience, his prior non-legal technical work, and his deep involvement in risk management to assist clients in understanding and controlling the coming regulatory and non-regulatory impacts of climate change. He has tried cases and argued appeals in the state courts in New Jersey and Maryland, conducted private arbitrations and mediations, and argued motions in federal courts across the nation.


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