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Supreme Court tosses out lawsuit on coal emissions, defers to EPA

The fight over global warming and whether to limit carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants must be resolved by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Supreme Court said, killing a lawsuit in federal court brought against the nation's five largest electric power companies.

The 8-0 decision Monday was a setback -- but not a surprise -- for environmentalists. The outcome puts more pressure on the Obama administration and the EPA to follow through with promises to propose new regulations in the fall that will restrict carbon pollution from power plants.

The EPA under President Obama has already adopted stricter new emissions standards for cars and trucks. However, more ambitious moves contemplated by the Obama administration could be difficult to implement, since the Republican-led House has voiced opposition to new regulations that would affect energy producers.

Eight states had filed suit against Midwestern and Southern power producers based on the old doctrine that a state or a private party could file a "public nuisance" lawsuit against another party for polluting its air or water.

In throwing out the "nuisance" lawsuit, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it poses a classic "who decides" question. In this instance, she said, it is clear environmental policy should be decided by the EPA, not by a single federal judge overseeing a legal dispute.

But the lawsuit that all but ended Monday began in a quite different era. In 2004, the administration of President George W. Bush contended that the federal government had no legal authority to attack the greenhouse gases that are believed to cause climate change. The EPA said then that the Clean Air Act dealt only with traditional pollution, such as smog, but not normally benign carbon dioxide.

Frustrated by the inaction, the states, including New York, California and Connecticut, joined with environmentalists in launching the lawsuit against American Electric Power Co. and four other power producers. In recent decades, such "nuisance" lawsuits had all but disappeared. Congress had adopted the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act in the early 1970s, and environmental disputes turned on interpretations of those laws.

Nonetheless, the federal appeals court in New York had allowed the lawsuit on global warming to go forward because the government had not adopted limits on carbon pollution from power plants.

In explaining why the suit must end, Ginsburg said the court in 2007 had ruled that the EPA had the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. That decision undercut the need for a separate lawsuit dealing with the same problem, she said.

"The EPA is currently engaged in a rule-making to decide whether the agency should set limits on emissions from domestic power plants. The Clean Air Act, in our judgment, leaves no room for a parallel track" which would call upon a judge to decide on the need for regulations, she said.

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