* US states argue their citizens harmed by global warming
* Utilities say lawsuit raises issues beyond court's power
* Obama administration backed private power companies
(Adds reaction from company lawyer, American Electric Power)
By James Vicini
WASHINGTON, June 20 The U.S. Supreme Court on
Monday rejected a global warming lawsuit against five big power
companies, its most important environmental ruling since 2007
and a victory for the utilities and the Obama administration.
The justices unanimously overturned a U.S. appeals court
ruling that the lawsuit now involving six states can proceed in
an effort to force the coal-burning plants to cut emissions of
gases that contribute to climate change.
In a defeat for environmentalists, the Supreme Court agreed
with the utility companies that regulating greenhouse gases
should be left to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) under the clean air laws.
The ruling stemmed from a 2004 lawsuit claiming the five
electric utilities have created a public nuisance by
contributing to climate change. The lawsuit wanted a federal
judge to order them to cut their carbon dioxide emissions.
Lawyers for the power companies, including an Obama
administration attorney representing the government-owned
Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), said the scope of the lawsuit
was unprecedented, involving national and international issues
outside the power of federal judges.
The utilities -- American Electric Power Co Inc (AEP.N),
Southern Co (SO.N), Xcel Energy Inc (XEL.N) and Duke Energy
Corp (DUK.N), along with TVA -- account for about 10 percent of
U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.
The states of California, Connecticut, Iowa, New York,
Rhode Island and Vermont said their citizens have been harmed
by global warming and wanted their lawsuit to proceed to
"The Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency
action the Act authorizes, we hold, displace the claims the
plaintiffs seek to pursue," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said
for the court.
The ruling involved the most important climate change case
to reach the Supreme Court since its landmark 2007 ruling that
authorized the EPA to regulate greenhouse emissions.
Although the EPA has found that greenhouse pollution poses
a health hazard, it has yet to impose regulations on the power
plants in the face of opposition from Republicans in Congress.
EPA SETTING RULES LIMITING EMISSIONS
Ginsburg said the EPA currently is engaged in making rules
to decide whether it should set limits on emissions from
domestic power plants.
"The critical point is that Congress has vested
decision-making authority in the EPA," she said in summarizing
the ruling from the bench.
If the plaintiffs are dissatisfied with the EPA's decision,
they then can seek court review under procedures under the
Clean Air Act, Ginsburg said.
Coal-fired power plants emit about twice as much carbon
dioxide -- which warms the Earth by trapping solar heat in the
atmosphere -- as natural gas-fired plants. Nuclear power plants
emit virtually no greenhouse gases.
Peter Keisler, who argued for the power companies, said he
was pleased the decision held that states and private parties
should look to Congress, not the courts, to set policies on
climate change and greenhouse gas regulation.
American Electric Power spokesman Pat Hemlepp said power
companies that emit greenhouse gases "can continue to operate
in accordance with environmental regulations without worrying
about the threat of incurring substantial costs defending
against climate change litigation."
David Doniger, policy director of the Climate Center at the
Natural Resources Defense Council environmental group, said,
"Today's ruling reaffirms the Environmental Protection Agency's
duty under the nation's 40-year-old Clean Air Act to safeguard
public health and welfare from dangerous carbon pollution. Now
the EPA must act without delay."
The Supreme Court case is American Electric Power v.
Connecticut, No. 10-174.
(Editing by Bill Trott)