In a much-publicized decision in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) is authorized to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs) through the Clean Air Act. Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007). A slew of recent cases have rejected plaintiffs’ attempts to assert common law claims for damages based on the consequences of past emissions of GHGs. The courts generally have found that USEPA has occupied the role of regulating GHGs, and challenges to the agency’s actions must be brought through the appropriate administrative channels. As the Supreme Court weighs whether to grant certiorari in the Coal. for Responsible Regulation, Inc., et al. v. EPA, No. 09-1322 (D.C. Cir. June 26, 2012), the case that addresses four USEPA GHG rules, the Supreme Court may have difficulty in changing course from the idea that GHGs should be regulated pursuant to the Clean Air Act.

Comer v. Murphy Oil et al., No. 12-60291 (5th Cir. May 14, 2013).

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi Gulf residents sued numerous energy companies, alleging that the defendants’ emissions of GHGs exacerbated the severity of and damage caused by the Class 5 hurricane (hereinafter Comer I). The claims ranged from public and private nuisance, trespass and negligence, to fraudulent misrepresentation and conspiracy. The district court dismissed Comer I with prejudice, finding that the plaintiffs had no standing to bring these claims and the claims were non-justiciable because they involved a political question.

Comer I became mired in technical details and procedures, and ultimately the plaintiffs tried to refile the case to bring an entirely new lawsuit, Comer II. The Fifth Circuit dismissed Comer II because the plaintiffs brought the same claims they alleged in Comer I, and the district court had already dismissed those claims on the merits. The court applied the doctrine of res judicata, which bars parties from litigating the same claim a second time, and, consequently, Comer II was barred by the district court’s original dismissal in Comer I. Because Comer I held that plaintiffs have no standing to challenge GHG emissions through common law claims, it supports the idea that GHGs should be regulated through the Clean Air Act, rather than addressed through litigation.

Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp. et al., No. 09-17490 (9th Cir. Sept. 21, 2012).

Kivalina is a village located on the far northwest shore of Alaska. The village had long been protected by the winter ice that persisted and protected the land mass itself. Due to melting icebergs and rising sea levels, the village land mass is eroding, and remains unprotected by the ice wall for much of the year. The village almost certainly will be either eroded into nothingness or inundated by the Arctic Ocean in the next twenty years. Kivalina sued a large group of energy companies, alleging that the GHGs emitted by them resulted in global warming and their village’s imminent destruction. Under a theory of common law public nuisance, the village sought damages to allow the relocation of the community.

The District Court held that political questions such as those raised by the allegations were not justiciable. Further, the court held the plaintiffs lacked Article III standing because they could not show that the named defendants likely caused the injuries, nor could the injuries be traced to an act of any of the defendants.

The Ninth Circuit agreed but expounded on the role of federal common law in pollution cases. The Court noted that federal common law has developed to fill gaps arising in cases of transboundary pollution and that those cases generally arise as nuisance claims. Despite its acknowledgement that nuisance claims can be used to regulate pollution, the Ninth Circuit explained that where a statute directly addresses the underlying issue, developing a federal common law was not necessary to address the issue. Accordingly, because the Supreme Court found that Congress acted through the Clean Air Act to address GHG pollution in Massachusetts v. EPA, filling the gap with federal common law (or public nuisance claims) was not necessary. Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit found that federal common law does not fill a gap solely based on the type of relief requested. In other words, the plaintiffs in Kivalina sought damages rather than emission reduction, the latter being the type of relief afforded by the Clean Air Act. Although the plaintiffs’ requested relief was not available under the Clean Air Act, the Clean Air Act still displaced federal common law and prevented plaintiffs from seeking damages through a common law claim (such as public nuisance).

Consequently, Kivalina, like Comer, supports the idea that USEPA is charged with regulation of GHGs through the Clean Air Act.

Public Trust Doctrine Cases

Along a similar avenue, a number of public trust doctrine cases have been filed on behalf of children since 2011. In these cases, the plaintiffs allege that children’s futures are being affected by the lack of action to regulate GHGs, and they request that the various agencies cited in the lawsuits — primarily USEPA and Department of the Interior — take immediate action to reduce GHGs. These cases use the public trust doctrine as the basis of the complaint by alleging that the atmosphere is a common resource that must be managed for the public good and the agencies have failed to properly manage that resource. These cases have generally been dismissed for failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted. See Alec L. v. Perciasepe, No. 11-cv-2235 (D.D.C. May 22, 2013); Sanders-Reed v. Martinez, No. D-101-cv-2011-01514 (D.N.M. July 14, 2012); Alec L. v. Jackson, No. 1:11-cv-02235 (D.D.C. May 31, 2012); Loorz v. Jackson (D.D.C. April 2, 2012); Filippone v. Iowa Dep’t of Natural Resources, No. 2-1005, 12-04444 (Iowa Ct. App. Mar. 13, 2013); Aronow v. State, No. A12-0585 (Minn. Ct. App. Oct. 1, 2012).

In general, cases arising under the public trust doctrine face two challenges. First, the Supreme Court held in PPL Montana, LLC v. Montana, No. 10-218 (2012), that the public trust doctrine is a matter of state, not federal, common law and so a federal claim is not justiciable in federal court. Second, in AEP v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (2011), the Supreme Court held that the role of regulating GHGs, and any consequence(s) of GHGs, has been occupied by the Clean Air Act and therefore challenges to the regulation of GHGs should be brought through the Clean Air Act rather than through a common law claim. Again, these cases are important for the future of GHG regulation because they affirm the agency’s role as the regulator of GHGs through the Clean Air Act.

Montana Envt’l Info. Center v. U.S. Bureau of Land Mgmt., No. cv-11-15-GF-SEH (D. Mont. June 14, 2013).

In another case affirming the role of the Clean Air Act in regulating GHGs, environmental groups claimed that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) failed to adequately consider climate change, global warming, and the emission of GHGs in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before approving oil and gas leases on federal land in Montana in 2008 and 2010. The environmental groups argued that BLM’s failure to follow NEPA procedures would result in emissions of methane gas from the oil and gas leases at issue. The release of methane gas would cause global warming and climate change, which would present a threat of harm to their aesthetic and recreational interests in lands near the lease sites by melting glaciers, warming streams, and promoting the destruction of forests through the proliferation of plagues of beetles.

The district court dismissed the lawsuit because the environmental groups lacked standing to bring the claim. The court found that the environmental groups failed to demonstrate that BLM’s alleged failure to follow proper procedure created an increased risk of actual, threatened, or imminent harm to their recreational and aesthetic interests in lands near the lease sites. Although the environmental groups had local recreational and aesthetic interests at heart, the court found that the effects of GHG emissions are diffuse and unpredictable, and the groups presented no scientific evidence or recorded scientific observations to support their assertions that BLM’s leasing decisions would present a threat of climate change impacts on lands near the lease sites. Furthermore, the environmental groups did not show that methane emissions from the lease sites would make a meaningful contribution to global GHG emissions or global warming. The court therefore found that the environmental groups failed to establish injury-in-fact and causation. As a result, the court foreclosed another potential avenue for litigating claims surrounding GHG emissions, and potential plaintiffs now seem to be left only with direct challenges to USEPA’s regulations (or lack thereof).

Conclusion

The Court would mark a dramatic shift if it moved away from these cases. By the time the Supreme Court has the opportunity to review climate change regulation again, the Obama administration may have set a “too big to fail” bar with its climate policies. Regardless of what happens in the future, however, as of today, the Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA appears to have had a pronounced impact, acceding to USEPA the authority to regulate GHGs through the Clean Air Act, and denying common law remedies for impacts tied to climate change.