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Supreme Court backs EPA over state govts on climate change

United States Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. Getty Images

In one of two significant rulings favoring business, the Supreme Court is barring states from using public nuisance laws to try to force major utilities to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

In a unanimous decision, the court said climate change regulation is the business of the federal government. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writes that under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency has the duty to regulate carbon-dioxide released into the atmosphere. Nowhere in the law, she says, is there a basis for "control of greenhouse gas emissions by federal judges."

Eight states initiated this novel approach. They argued that under traditional common law, power plants were creating a public nuisance, and that state governments had the power to intervene. Eight states were originally involved: California, Connecticut, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. When Republican governors took over in New Jersey and Wisconsin, those states withdrew from the case.

The targets were five of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in America. Four of them are part of the Edison Electric Institute, a major industry group. Institute lawyer Bill Fang praises the ruling, saying "you can't have plaintiffs running into federal court and suing not just utility defendants but any number of industrial and business defendants on nuisance grounds. It's back door way to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. " Companies, he says, can't operate if they have to face different climate change regulations in each state. "They need certainty and a set of federal standards is obviously better than having 50 states try to regulate."

The EPA plans to issue sweeping regulations to reduce power plant emissions by next year. It's decision is expected to be challenged. Republicans in Congress, for instance, argue that tough standards will be too costly for companies trying to recover from the recession. The Obama administration favors stronger measures to limit global warming. Even so, it sided with the power companies in this case, to protect federal authority.

Environmentalists are disappointed. David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council says, "Now the EPA must act without delay." He complains that power plant "pollution is driving dangerous heat waves and smog, stronger storms, floods and droughts." Justice Ginsburg says that while states can't go to court right now to force emissions cutbacks, they can sue after the EPA issues its regulations if they disagree with them.

In another pro-business decision, the Supreme Court is making it harder for employees to band together to file class actions to fight workplace discrimination. That ruling stops what would have been the largest such lawsuit in history, potentially involving more than a million-and-a-half workers at Wal-Mart.