States Sue Utilities Over Global Warming Emissions

NEW YORK, New York, July 22, 2004 (ENS) - Eight states and New York City filed suit Wednesday to force five major U.S. energy producers to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for global warming.

The suit is seen as a direct challenge to the policies of the Bush administration, which has questioned the science behind global warming and opposed mandatory reductions of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide.

Attorneys general of both parties from California, Connecticut, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin and the City of New York, filed the case in federal district court in New York under the federal common law of public nuisance.

The law provides a right of action to curb air and water pollution emanating from sources in other states.

The plaintiffs note that most scientists believe that there is ample evidence that human generated greenhouse gas emissions are causing the climate to warm, and if left unchecked, global warming could cause rising sea levels, the melting of the polar icecaps, and a host of other environmental problems that could have far reaching impacts.


California General Bill Lockyer (Photo courtesy Office of the AG)
"This lawsuit opens a new legal frontier in the fight against global warming – a challenge that poses a serious threat to our environment, our natural resources, our public health and safety, and our economy," said California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. "A head-in-the-sand response is not an option."

The suit names the American Electric Power (AEP) Company, Southern Company, Xcel Energy, Cinergy Corporation and the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority.

Together, the five companies own or operate 174 fossil fuel burning power plants in 20 states.

These plants emit some 650 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year, approximately 10 percent of the nation’s annual total CO2 emissions and some 25 percent of the U.S. utility industry’s total. "Defendants are the five largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the United States and are among the largest in the world," the complaint alleges.

"There is no dispute that global warming is upon us and that these defendants' carbon dioxide pollution is a major contributor," said New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. "Under accepted and unambiguous law, a court can order them to reduce their emissions. We believe a court should do so and will do so."

The suit only seeks cuts in CO2 emissions – it does not seek monetary penalties.

power plant

Coal-fired power plants currently provide more than 50 percent of the U.S. electricity (Photo courtesy DOE)
A parallel lawsuit also was filed Tuesday in the same court by two land conservation groups. It is the first private legal action ever to seek direct corporate cuts in the emissions responsible for global warming.

The Audubon Society of New Hampshire joined the New York based Open Space Institute (OSI) The two land groups are represented in the action by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

"Our mission as land trusts is to protect and preserve unique landscapes for the enjoyment and benefit of the American people. That mission is severely jeopardized by global warming," said David Houghton, of New Hampshire Audubon. "We don't want monetary damages. All we're asking is that these companies clean up the pollution responsible for the problem."

"These cases represent a new frontier in the fight against global warming pollution," said David Doniger NRDC attorney and an expert on the cases. "Today both public and private plaintiffs are asking the court to hold corporate polluters legally accountable for the health and environmental consequences of their emissions. It is a bold, but simple action."

The plaintiffs in both cases say there are available and affordable solutions the companies can implement to reduce their CO2 emissions, including more efficient operation of coal-fired plants and the use of clean coal technologies.

They add that the energy producers can move away from coal and use natural gas and biomass as well as clean energy sources such as wind and solar.


New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (Photo courtesy Office of the AG)
Cuts can be made "without any measurable harm to the economy," Spitzer said.

Industry groups dispute that point of view and contend that mandatory CO2 reductions would hurt the economy.

"The suit would force consumers in other states to pay much higher prices for electricity," said Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "The attorneys general are engaging in irresponsible political grandstanding."

The suit is frivolous, said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a Washington based lobbying group of power generating companies.

Segal says "some of the key factual issues in this suit" are already the subject of litigation before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

That court is hearing a challenge by 12 states, several cities, and more than a dozen environmental groups to the Bush administration’s decision not to regulate CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

"The nuisance case is just an exercise in election year forum shopping," Segal said.

Industry representatives add that some of the companies named in the suit have made voluntary commitments to reduce CO2 emissions and are also participating in carbon sequestration efforts.

Cinergy, for example, has pledged to cut CO2 emissions five percent below 2000 levels by 2012, and Xcel Energy says it will reduce CO2 emissions by 12 million tons by 2009.

But such voluntary cuts are not enough given the severity of the problem, the plaintiffs said.


Coal-fired power plants like this one emit carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. (Photo courtesy USGS)
U.S. greenhouse gas emissions rose some 14 percent from 1990 to 2000; bar further action, they are expected to increase another 12 percent by 2012.

U.S. power plants contribute some 40 percent of the nation’s CO2 emissions and are viewed by many as the easiest target for rapid reductions.

"When companies do harm to their neighbors and citizens, they should be held accountable and force to stop," said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. "This lawsuit is not desperate, but our planet is desperate for action."

Skeptics of the suit, Blumenthal told reporters, should "think tobacco without the money," a reference to the massive legal case states successfully won against the tobacco industry.

"We have here a uniquely dangerous and urgent health threat and a groundbreaking set of legal claims," he said. "We cannot wait and stand idle while our planet is so endangered."

California's Attorney General Lockyer agrees. In California, the complaint alleges, global warming could cause heat-related deaths to double in Los Angeles and cause an Francisco to suffer a 100 year storm every 10 years.

Global warming could "produce rising sea levels, and inundate low-lying property and damage infrastructure along the state’s 1,100 mile coastline," the complaint alleges. Sea level rise could cause billions of dollars of property damage due to increased flooding; and threaten to inundate tidal marshes in the San Francisco Bay estuary, the largest on the West Coast," the complaint states.

Global warming could, "contaminate the water supply for 20 million Californians by increasing salinity in the San Francisco Bay and San Joaquin Delta," according to the complaint, "substantially reduce the Sierra snow pack, and cause resulting water shortages that would harm residents, hurt agriculture, disrupt other businesses and cut the source of hydroelectric power; and significantly increase the damage caused by wildfires."


Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller (Photo courtesy Office of th AG)
The effects of climate change are not restricted to the coasts. Co-plaintiff Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said, "Global warming threatens Iowa as we know it today. The Earth is heating faster than at any time in history, and that poses enormous risk to Iowa agriculture and Iowans' health.

"The problem is pollution," said Miller, "and the top source of pollution is carbon dioxide emissions from power plants."

"The good news is we can tackle this and try to turn it around, and that's what our lawsuit is all about," said Miller, who is serving his fourth six year term as Iowa's attorney general. "We must act now to protect the beautiful and bountiful Iowa we know today, for our children and grandchildren, and generations to come."

Read the states' complaint online at: