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Law School Case Brief

Am. Elec. Power Co. v. Connecticut - 564 U.S. 410, 131 S. Ct. 2527 (2011)

Rule:

The Clean Air Act and the EPA action the Act authorizes displace any federal common-law right to seek abatement of carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel fired powerplants. 

Facts:

The lawsuits considered here began well before Clean Air Act and the EPA initiated efforts to regulate greenhouse gases. Two groups of plaintiffs, respondents here, filed separate complaints in a Federal District Court against petitioners, the same five major electric power companies. One group of plaintiffs included eight States and New York City; the second joined three nonprofit land trusts. According to the complaint, defendants are the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the Nation. By contributing to global warming, plaintiffs asserted, the defendants' emissions substantially and unreasonably interfered with public rights, in violation of the federal common law of interstate nuisance, or, in the alternative, of state tort law. All plaintiffs ask for a decree setting carbon-dioxide emissions for each defendant at an initial cap, to be further reduced annually.

The District Court dismissed both suits as presenting nonjusticiable political questions, but the Second Circuit reversed. 

Issue:

Could federal judges set limits on greenhouse gas emissions in face of a law empowering the EPA to set the same limits?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The Clean Air Act and the EPA actions it authorized displaced any federal common law right to seek the relief sought. The Act spoke directly to such emissions. 42 U.S.C.S. § 7411 directed the EPA to list categories of air pollution and establish emission standards. In fact, the EPA was doing so for greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel fired power plants. The Act itself thus provided a means to seek limits on the emissions--the same relief respondents sought by invoking federal common law. The critical point was that Congress delegated to the EPA the decision whether and how to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants; the delegation was what displaced federal common law. The judgments respondents would commit to federal judges, in suits in any federal district, could not be reconciled with the decisionmaking scheme Congress enacted. It was error to find that federal judges could set limits on greenhouse gas emissions in face of a law empowering the EPA to set the same limits, subject to judicial review only to ensure against arbitrary, capricious, or unlawful action under 42 U.S.C.S. § 7607(d)(9).

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