Can Americans sue notorious polluters for their contributions to climate change? That was the hope of six states, including Iowa, which brought a lawsuit against coal-fired plants – a process, which began in 2004.
The answer is likely no.
The suit was filed during the Bush Administration, before the EPA was granted authority to limit carbon emissions. In a landmark case in 2007, the Supreme Court gained that ability, but the states pressed on with the litigation.
In today’s Supreme Court proceedings, several Justices were skeptical about the plaintiff’s arguments.
During Tuesday’s argument, most of the justices — liberal and conservative — said they were skeptical about turning over such a complicated and politically charged issue to a single federal judge.
This “sounds to me a lot like what the EPA does,” said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A judge cannot be “a super EPA” who sets detailed regulations for power plants, she said.
Justice Elena Kagan agreed. Prior to the 1970s, when Congress enacted the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, judges decided “nuisance” lawsuits where one state sued another for causing pollution. “It’s a different world,” she said, now that the EPA has the legal authority to regulate pollution, including greenhouses gases.
Coal in Iowa
Iowa still generates about 70 percent of its electricity from the scores of coal-fired plants that stretch across the state. Ninety-two percent of Iowans live within 30 miles of a coal plant and a third of children attend schools nearby one.
Those plants rank among the oldest and most inefficient in the country, according to a Physicians for Social Responsibility study.
Pollution from burning coal can lead to asthma and heart, lung and neurologic diseases. Or they can worsen the conditions of people already diagnosed with those diseases, all of which are increasing in the U.S.
Children and the elderly and people who work outdoors are among the most vulnerable to the effects of coal emissions.
In February, a Harvard researcher estimated that Americans spend over $345 billion addressing the health and environmental effects of coal.