All posts tagged 'Connecticut v. American Electric Power'

Top 6 at 6: Highlights of the Top Climate Change Stories in the First Half of 2013

June 30, 2013 21:01
by J. Wylie Donald
Another six months have passed and it is time for our semi-annual look at climate change and its intersection with the law.  Here are some highlights of the last six months: 1.  The Administration’s Focus.  After months of silence in the 2012 presidential campaign, President Obama rejuvenated his administration’s commitment to addressing climate change.  We heard in his inaugural address:   “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”  He carried this forward in his State of the Union address less than a month later: “I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.  But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.  (Applause.)  I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”     And in a speech this past Tuesday the promises took another step toward reality when the President outlined his “climate action plan.”  Recognizing the logjam in Congress, the Administration's plan is based on authority the executive branch already has. The salient points include:  1) further restrictions on powerplant greenhouse gas emissions (notably addressing coal); 2) promotion of resilience and adaptation with respect to weather-related calamities; 3) additional permitting of renewable energy facilities on public lands; and 4) engagement in the international arena on climate change such as working out a global free trade agreement on clean energy technologies.   The goal is a reduction of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 17%.  The Wall Street Journal called these “sweeping climate policies.”  We will see; with no new authority, Gina McCarthy’s nomination to head EPA held up, and the bounty of natural gas unleashed by fracking, greenhouse gas reduction may be achieved by the market, see Leveraging Natural Gas to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions,  not governmental efforts.   2. 400 PPM.  On May 9, Mauna Loa Observatory of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory reported that the average weekly value of atmospheric carbon dioxide at the observatory had reached 400 ppm, a level unsurpassed in 3 million years.  The world collectively ignored the number, treating it more like an insignificant decimal, 0.0004, which it was (a decimal, not insignificant).  We don’t think anyone will dispute that there are three ways to interpret this number:  it’s bad, it’s good, it’s neither.  Climate scientists are unanimous that it’s bad.  There is nothing saying it’s good.  Which means the justification for not taking action on climate change is that the ever increasing levels, and the ever increasing rate of accumulation, of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (see the graphs by the observatory), are of no consequence.  US Airways will probably side with the climate scientists - it canceled 18 flights as a result of the record-breaking temperatures in the southwest this past weekend.  As a footnote, we note that Mauna Loa’s number is an average, and is subject to refinement.  As it turned out, the 400 ppm number was refined a few weeks later to 399.89.   3.  Free Trade.  In 2009 Ontario enacted its Green Energy Act to promote renewable energy in the province.  One approach is the adoption of a feed-in tariff (mandatory above-market rates for electricity derived from renewable resources).  This had successfully been pioneered in Germany.  Ontario legislators also saw the opportunity to spur job growth by giving subsidies to businesses that sourced their wind turbines and solar panels in Ontario (i.e., “domestic content”). Japan jumped on this protectionism immediately and sought consultations with Canada under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organization. The consultations were ineffective and Japan requested a panel to hear the dispute concerning Ontario’s “domestic content requirements," with which renewable energy generators were required to comply "in the design and construction of electricity generation facilities in order to qualify for guaranteed prices” under the feed-in tariff program. Last December the panel ruled in favor of Japan on the domestic content requirements. Canada appealed and this May the appellate panel affirmed. Ontario's energy minister has confirmed that Ontario will abide by the WTO decision and revise its Green Energy Act.   We conclude that free trade remains colorblind. 4. Climate Change Liability Lawsuits.  For seven years now, the first wave of climate change liability lawsuits have roiled the legal waters.  It bears remembering that in October 2009, the plaintiffs in these cases rode the crest of the wave.  The Second Circuit had reversed the trial court’s dismissal in Connecticut v. American Electric Power (AEP), and the Fifth Circuit likewise overturned the Southern District of Mississippi’s dismissal of Comer v. Murphy Oil USA.  Plaintiffs had standing; the political question doctrine did not apply. Things have gone badly for the plaintiffs since.  All readers of this blog know of the Supreme Court’s decision in AEP, stifling the plaintiffs’ case under the doctrine of displacement.  This year two more decisions confirmed the Judicial Branch’s hostility to these claims.  Comer made it back to the Fifth Circuit, where dismissal was summarily affirmed on the doctrine of res judicata.  And the last of the original quadriga, Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., found its petition for certiorari denied in April,  thus leaving the Ninth Circuit’s affirmance of dismissal unchanged. The only reed left for the plaintiffs is the granting of a petition for certiorari in Comer, a prospect we deem unlikely, if only because the appeal would be based on a purely procedural question of little likelihood of being repeated and of little relevance to the larger climate change issues. 5.  Ursus Maritimus.  On March 1 the D.C. Circuit in In re Polar Bear Endangered Species Act Litigation  affirmed the district court’s dismissal of challenges to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because “due to the effects of global climate change, the polar bear is likely to become an endangered species and face the threat of extinction within the foreseeable future.” The polar bear’s friends (environmental groups) sought to have the bear listed as “endangered.”  Ursus maritimus’s less-than-friends (the State of Alaska and hunting groups), urged that no listing was appropriate.  The standard in such reviews is relatively simple:  “Our principal responsibility here is to determine, in light of the record considered by the agency, whether the Listing Rule is a product of reasoned decisionmaking.”  The Court found that it was, holding specifically the the Listing Rule rests on a three-part thesis: the polar bear is dependent upon sea ice for its survival; sea ice is declining; and climatic changes have and will continue to dramatically reduce the extent and quality of Arctic sea ice to a degree sufficiently grave to jeopardize polar bear populations. See Listing Rule, 73 Fed. Reg. at 28,212. No part of this thesis is disputed and we find that FWS’s conclusion – that the polar bear is threatened within the meaning of the ESA – is reasonable and adequately supported by the record.” As arctic resource development progresses as the ice retreats, the polar bear's Endangered Species Act listing is sure to take on larger significance, both as a model for the preservation of other arctic species, and as a tool to block development. 6.  Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). On June 13 the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision in Association of Taxicab Operators USA v. City of Dallas. In the case the local taxicab organization challenged a city ordinance that allowed CNG-fueled taxicabs “head-of-the-line” privileges at Love Field in downtown Dallas. Plaintiff's theory was that section 209(a) of the Clean Air Act, which prohibits states and their political subdivisions from adopting emission standards for motor vehicles, preempted the ordinance either directly or by implication. The Fifth Circuit did not agree. Traditional police powers of the state were preserved to the state by section 209(d) of the Clean Air Act. More importantly, an ordinance granting head-of-the-line privileges, on its face did not set an emission standard, as required by the statute.  As to any implied preemption, the ordinance may have influenced taxicab operators to alter their behavior, but it did not compel them to do so. Less than 7% of Dallas's taxicabs served Love Field and the only place CNG cabs had head-of-the-line privileges was at Love Field; there were plenty of other places for gasoline powered cabs to pick up fares. Accordingly implied preemption did not apply either.  One of our themes in a world beset by climate change is that there will be winners and there will be losers. Little did taxicab operators know they would be both.

Carbon Dioxide | Carbon Emissions | Climate Change | Greenhouse Gases | Legislation | Regulation | Utilities | Year in Review

Dismissed Means Dismissed: Comer v. Murphy Oil, the First Climate Change Liability Damages Suit, Is Tossed Again

March 22, 2012 19:14
by J. Wylie Donald
In a case of surprising longevity, Comer v Murphy Oil USA, Inc., may finally have been laid to rest. In a decision filed Tuesday, Judge Louis Guirola, Jr., Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, concluded that the plaintiffs in the first climate change liability damages suit were not entitled to a second bite at the apple. And even if they were, their case still failed. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, numerous parties filed scores of lawsuits seeking to find some source to pay for the awful devastation. One suit, Comer, asserted through various amended complaints that electric utilities, coal companies, chemical companies and oil companies  were responsible for the increased ferocity of Hurricane Katrina because of their emissions of greenhouse gases and their alleged resultant contribution to global warming.   Following various iterations, plaintiffs ultimately alleged:  "Prior to striking the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina had developed into a cyclonic storm of unprecedented strength and destruction, fueled and intensified by the warm waters and warm environmental conditions present in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico.  These high sea surface temperatures, which were a direct and proximate result of the defendants' green house gas emissions, increased the intensity and magnitude of Hurricane Katrina."   Amended Complaint, 1:11-cv-00220-LG-RHW, ¶ 17.  Plaintiffs also alleged risks of future harms as a result of effects of global warming. Motions to dismiss were filed, which ultimately led to judgment in favor of the defendants. Judge Guirola ruled that plaintiffs lacked standing and that the claims were non-justiciable under the political question doctrine.  2007 WL 6942285 (S.D. Miss. Aug. 30, 2007), Plaintiffs appealed and were initially successful before the Fifth Circuit, which reversed the district court and concluded:  "Like the district courts in [Connecticut v.] American Electric [Power Co., 406 F. Supp. 2d 265 (S.D.N.Y. 2005)] and [California v.] General Motors [, 2007 WL 2726871 (N.D. Cal. 2007)], the defendants begin with an assumption they cannot support, viz., that the adjudication of plaintiffs' claims will require the district court to fix and impose future emission standards upon defendants and all other emitters. Then, again in a fashion similar to those district courts, the defendants proclaim that it would be "impossible" for a court to perform such an obviously legislative or regulatory task so that the case must present a nonjusticiable political question. The defendants have failed to show how any of the issues inherent in the plaintiffs' nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims have been committed by the Constitution or federal laws "wholly and indivisibly" to a federal political branch."  Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, 585 F.3d 855, 879 (5th. Cir. 2009). That was the high water mark of the plaintiffs' bar's success in climate change liability cases. With the Second Circuit's decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., 582 F.3d 309 (2nd Cir. 2009), just one month earlier, the tide crested with the Fifth Circuit's decision in October.  Two federal courts of appeal had found standing for climate change liability plaintiffs, and rejected the political question doctrine.  Concurrently, however, a new climate change liability suit, Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., was dismissed at the end of September.  663 F. Supp. 2d 863 (N.D. Cal. 2009).  From the present perspective, Kivalina's dismissal marked the turning of the tide. The next dark moment for the plaintiffs occurred when the Fifth Circuit en banc accepted the appeal of Comer, automatically vacating the panel's decision. Then the en banc court's quorum dissolved, requiring the court to dismiss the appeal.  But with the panel decision already vacated, that meant the controlling law was Judge Guirola's 2007 dismissal. The Supreme Court refused to issue a mandamus order, which meant Comer was over.  It got darker.  The Supreme Court dismissed the plaintiffs' federal common law claims in American Electric Power; the gutted case was remanded to the Second Circuit (and plaintiffs ultimately dismissed voluntarily).  So as of June 2011 all the climate change liability suits had been disposed of. Well, not entirely.  Kivalina was pending on the Ninth Circuit's docket.  And the Comer plaintiffs refused to abandon the field and re-filed their claims, relying on a Mississippi statute purportedly permitting refiling. Judge Guirola, however, did not agree. Plaintiffs' claims were barred because the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel applied. Slip op. at 12.   Plaintiffs had had a previous  opportunity to litigate their claims, which had been decided against them with prejudice.  Moreover, plaintiffs still lacked standing because they could not demonstrate that their alleged injuries were "fairly traceable" to the defendants' activities:  "As this Court stated in the first Comer lawsuit, the parties should not be permitted to engage in discovery that will likely cost millions of dollars, when the tenuous nature of the causation alleged is readily apparent at the pleadings stage of the litigation. The Court finds that the plaintiffs have not alleged injuries that are fairly traceable to the defendants’ conduct, and thus, the plaintiffs do not have standing to pursue this lawsuit."  Slip op. at 23.   In addition, the political question doctrine still applied:  " The Court finds that the claims presented by the plaintiffs constitute non-justiciable political questions, because there are nojudicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving the issues presented, and because the case would require the Court to make initial policy determinations that have been entrusted to the EPA by Congress."  Slip op. at 29.   And just in case all that was not enough, Judge Guirola also ruled that 1) "the plaintiffs’ entire lawsuit is displaced by the Clean Air Act", slip op. at 30 (relying on American Electric Power); 2) the three-year statute of limitations applied to the Hurricane Katrina-based claims because the Mississippi "savings statute" did not apply, and the alleged continuing torts were not ripe, slip op. at 33; and 3) plaintiffs could not demonstrate proximate cause because "[t]he assertion that the defendants’ emissions combined over a period of decades or centuries with other natural and man-made gases to cause or strengthen a hurricane and damage personal property is precisely the type of remote, improbable, and extraordinary occurrence that is excluded from liability."  Slip op. at 35. Judge Guirola's decision is well-written and thorough.  Will it be enough? We expect so but we cannot be pollyana here.  A Fifth Circuit panel has wrestled with Judge Guirola's standing and political question analysis before, and reversed him.  This time, however, they will also need to avoid his res judicata, collateral estoppel, displacement, statute of limitations and proximate cause analyses.  That seems a tall order.  As for the the Second Circuit, its decision on standing is still valid law because that issue was not resolved by American Electric Power.  Indeed, the Supreme Court split 4-4 on the issue (Justice Sotomayor recused herself because of her participation in argument at the court of appeals).  Should Comer (or Kivalina) make it to the Court, the standing question could come out badly for the defense if Justice Sotomayor is the swing vote needed for a bare majority in favor of broader standing.  Last, we have Kivalina before the Ninth Circuit.  While undoubtedly the court will have read Judge Guirola's opinion, it will also have read the Fifth Circuit panel's decision.  Which will be more influential?  We'll make that decision then.

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation

Climate Change and the Supreme Court Part II: Certiorari Granted in Connecticut v. American Electric Power

December 6, 2010 07:35
by J. Wylie Donald
It doesn't take much insight to conclude that today's granting by the Supreme Court of the petition for certiorari in Connecticut v. American Electric Power could be the start of a whole new era in climate change liability lawsuits. If the Supreme Court comes down on the side of the plaintiff States, it may become open season on utilities, coal and petrochemical companies, automobile manufacturers, and anyone else a litigation-minded plaintiff wishes to mulct in damages for carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. Potential defendants need to take steps now to identify their insurance coverage and be prepared to give notice. The Supreme Court last looked at climate change in 2007 when it concluded in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), by a 5-4 decision, that the Clean Air Act required the USEPA to consider whether carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were air pollutants within the meaning of the Act. The issue this time is whether the courts should be imposing judicial remedies for injuries allegedly arising from the emission of carbon dioxide, an alleged nuisance. Few reading this blog will need an introduction to Connecticut v. American Electric Power. I won't go over it other than to remind readers that it was filed in New York federal court in 2004 by several states against a collection of carbon dioxide-emitting utilities and was then consolidated with similar cases filed by public interest groups. The basic allegation was that the utilities' carbon dioxide emissions constituted a public nuisance and the plaintiffs sought injunctive relief compelling the utilities to reduce their emissions. On motion, the trial court dismissed the case concluding that the political question doctrine applied because only the political branches (i.e., the legislative and executive arms of the government) could appropriately balance the array of environmental, economic and other issues presented. An appeal followed to the Second Circuit, which reversed and held that the political question doctrine does not preclude federal common law nuisance claims. Following denial of a petition for en banc review, the petition for certiorari was filed on August 2, followed shortly by an amicus curiae brief from the Obama administration. The federal government asserted that the Second Circuit's decision should be vacated because the government was developing regulations and that the courts should stay out. Of course Connecticut v. American Electric Power is not alone. Private and public plaintiffs have brought suit for alleged climate change losses arising in Mississippi, California and Alaska. Although all three cases have been dismissed, the appeal of one was withdrawn, the appellate panel in the second reversed the dismissal, but which was then vacated when the en banc court accepted review and then could not muster a quorum, and the third is pending before the Ninth Circuit. See Cal. v. Gen. Motors Corp., No. C06-05755, 2007 WL 2726871 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 17, 2007), appeal dismissed, No. 07-16908 (9th Cir. June 24, 2009); Comer v. Murphy Oil Co., 2007 WL 6942285 (S.D. Miss. Aug. 30, 2007), rev'd, 585 F.3d 855 (5th Cir. 2009), reh'g granted, 598 F.3d 208 (5th Cir.), appeal dismissed, 607 F.3d 1049 (5th Cir. 2010); Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., 663 F.Supp.2d 863 (N.D. Cal. 2009), appeal pending, No. 09-17490 (9th Cir. Nov. 5, 2009). Quite clearly, the last chapter on these types of lawsuits has not been written. Reading the tea leaves on Connecticut v. American Electric Power will be difficult. To grant a petition for certiorari, only four justices need to approve. With the retirement of Justices Stevens (author of Massachusetts v. EPA) and Souter (who joined in the opinion), and the recusal from Connecticut of Justice Sotomayor (who heard argument at the Second Circuit but did not sign the opinion), a 4-4 decision in Connecticut is certainly possible. That would leave the Second Circuit's decision intact without a Supreme Court decision (which might bode well for the appeal of Kivalina before the Ninth Circuit). IMPLICATIONS FOR A DECISION Emitters of carbon dioxide are hoping for a clean decision that puts the climate change liability genie back in the bottle and lays the theory of federal common law nuisance in its grave. But what if that does not occur? There is certainly a fair chance that the justices either affirm the theory, or, 4-4, do not reject it. In that case, plaintiffs' lawyers are very likely to be emboldened and bring other suits. Some target industries have already been identified. When the results of USEPA's greenhouse gas reporting rule are collated, other industries may find themselves in the crosshairs. The time to identify insurance coverage is not when half a dozen claims have been filed in jurisdictions across the nation demanding an answer within 30 days. Climate change defendants and potential defendants should take steps now to prepare for future claims, most notably because of the risk they may lose insurance coverage for these claims if they are not reported timely. Many will rely on notice to their current insurer and that is a good strategy, so far as it goes and only if that carrier agrees to coverage. But besides one's current policy, one should also be considering prior "occurrence-based" policies, which could be triggered based on allegations of injury-causing events occurring over time. It does not require much imagination to analogize the time periods over which, for example, glaciers have melted, snowpack has become depleted, erosion has increased, and water supplies have been drawn down to other drawn-out injuries that established the "continuous trigger" rule that attached multiple policies. Some states have a bright line rule for notice. If it is not given promptly, dismissal based on late notice is a likely result. Other states are more lenient and require prejudice to the insurer. New York until recently was a no-prejudice-to-the-insurer state. But the law changed in 2009 to require the insurer to show prejudice (or the insured to show no prejudice) - but it was not retroactive. Accordingly, insureds with policies subject to New York law (which is often the case due to a choice of law provision in the policy) prior to 2009 still need to give notice promptly. Even in those states that require prejudice to be shown, one cannot know how the case law on prejudice will evolve in the context of climate change; hence prompt notice is a good idea in other states as well. Notice here is not as easy as it may sound. Unlike Superfund cases where the (alleged) responsible entity is identified by the claimant and therefore can be identified to the insurance company, carbon dioxide emission liability can fall to any fossil-fuel fired plant owned by the corporate entity, including potentially those operated by subsidiaries. Accordingly, those subsidiaries' policies may need to be tracked down and placed on notice as well. Taking liberties with Ben Franklin's adage, an ounce of protection is worth a pound of cure. Should climate change claims get the green light from the Supreme Court, policyholders would be wise to have located all of their protection ahead of time.

Carbon Dioxide | Carbon Emissions | Climate Change | Climate Change Litigation | Insurance | Supreme Court | Utilities

Looking Forward and Looking Back - Some Climate Change Response Perspectives and Predictions

December 2, 2010 07:44
by J. Wylie Donald
Another year done, another time to look back and to look forward. In the climate change space, the increasing tempo of regulation was halted, but that does not mean that there were not significant events. We catalog a few with accompanying predictions of the future:Without a doubt the big legal action this year will be the United States Supreme Court's decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power, where States and public interest organizations seek to vindicate their ability to sue on a "carbon dioxide as public nuisance" theory. One should expect the Ninth Circuit to hold off an any decision in Kivalina v. ExxonMobil until after the Supremes render their decision. And climate change plaintiffs will husband their resources until the lay of the legal landscape is clear before filing any new suits. Our crystal ball, however, also hints that clarity may not be forthcoming. Justice Sotomayor has recused herself - there may be effectively no decision if the Court comes out 4-4. Hand-in-hand with climate change liability lawsuits goes climate change liability insurance coverage. That too is being litigated at an ultimate appellate venue. In Steadfast Insurance Co. v. The AES Corp., the Virginia Supreme Court will consider whether for the purposes of the duty to defend, an occurrence is alleged in Kivalina. Although Virginia is not the most popular of coverage litigation venues, that Steadfast is the first climate change coverage case ensures that the decision will be significant.While these are heady times for courts and litigators, those ready for the legislative "fix" for climate change will not find succor in 2011. Cap-and-trade advocates became quieter and quieter in the days leading up to the November 2010 mid-term elections. We win no points for our prescience when we predict that there will be no new federal legislation regulating carbon dioxide emissions in the coming year. Quieter even than domestic cap-and-trade supporters are those in favor of some international regime. COP 16 in Cancun achieved very little. It established a $100 billion Green Climate Fund, without any provisions to fund it. It did not extend the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. And China and the United States (the two largest greenhouse gas emitters) are still not part of any global climate change plan. COP 17 takes place in Durban, South Africa at the end of next year. With an American presidential race beginning, it is hard to imagine the Administration will butt heads with its Republican adversaries on anything contentious or innovative proposed at Durban. Even if legislation is going nowhere, that does not mean the administrative agencies will be quiet. The FTC Green Guides have proposed revisions to address carbon neutrality and renewable energy claims. Expect the proposals to be acted on in 2011. The SEC's guidance on climate change disclosure surfaced in February 2010. The guidance specifically requires analysis of domestic and international regulation. In light of the shift in the climate-change-regulation pendulum, it will be interesting to see if any reporting company states that it expects less restrictions, rather than more restrictions. And of course USEPA's greenhouse gas reporting rules required the first set of data to be turned in at the end of 2010, which undoubtedly will initiate further regulatory rules. Private parties will go where the money is, which will continue to be in heavily subsidized renewable programs. Will the Republican Congress recognize the market dislocations engendered by these subsidies and cut them? Or will different influences like jobs or constituents continue to make their presence felt? If the December enactment of the Tax Relief Act (which provided an extension of the 30% tax grant for renewable projects) is any guide, if a project can be supported with a tax subsidy, rather than a government payment, it will continue. And what can we say about the weather? 2010 was an above average hurricane year, but fortunately for the United States, damage was minimal. The hurricane experts at Colorado State University predict an equally busy year for 2011. Pay up those premiums. Best for the New Year!

Insurance | Climate Change | Supreme Court | Legislation | Carbon Emissions

AbCDE - Thoughts on an "Absolute" Carbon Dioxide Exclusion

October 27, 2009 17:28
by J. Wylie Donald
We trust that those of you following climate change litigation have heard the veritable tap dance of decisions emanating out of the federal courts in the last month.  First, Connecticut v. American Electric Power was reversed by the Second Circuit.  That was followed by the District Court for the Northern District of California dismissing Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil and rejecting the Second Circuit’s analysis.  The Fifth Circuit, not to be outdone, reversed the Comer v. Murphy Oil decision, but also provided a special concurring opinion where the judge advised that he would have affirmed on alternative grounds.  All of these cases are thoroughly discussed in the blogosphere. What has been less thoroughly ventilated, however, are the implications for insurance coverage for climate change liability claims.  We have discussed before the Steadfast v. AES coverage case filed in Virginia where the insurer seeks to avoid coverage for the Kivalina suit.  We thought originally that Kivalina’s dismissal might have made that suit go away.  However, with two climate change suits now headed back to the trial court (barring further appeal), we will be surprised if Kivalina is not appealed, and further surprised if Steadfast does not provide some law on climate change coverage. One subject that will not be addressed in Steadfast, however, is the efficacy of an "absolute"1 carbon dioxide exclusion.  Yes, you heard that correctly:  the AbCDE.  I regularly ask my insurer colleagues about their thinking on this and just as regularly am told that it is not in the works or even discussed.  The spoken reason is fairly straightforward:  if carbon dioxide is a pollutant under the terms of the policy, and damage from pollution is excluded, then claims arising from carbon dioxide emissions are already excluded by the so-called absolute pollution exclusion and the AbCDE is not needed.  The unspoken reason reflects the converse:  if a carbon dioxide exclusion is necessary, it must be the case that a policy without such an exclusion provides coverage for carbon dioxide liability - even if it has a pollution exclusion.  From an insurer’s perspective, that could be an expensive outcome and suggests a reason to avoid implementing the AbCDE.  History and policyholder experience suggest, however, a different outcome.  Many will recall the time when coverage for asbestos-related loss was hotly debated.  Where insurers lacked express asbestos exclusions, they sought refuge in pollution exclusions.  Success was mixed.  The New York Court of Appeals’ decision in Continental Casualty Co. v. Rapid-American Corp., 593 N.Y.S.2d 966 (N.Y. 1993), is typical.  Although the court concluded that asbestos could be a pollutant, irritant or contaminant within the meaning of the liability policy, it determined the policy’s pollution exclusion to be ambiguous in context and coverage for asbestos loss was found.  Ultimately, the insurance industry recognized the solution to its asbestos problems and decisions like Rapid-American was to adopt universally what is referred to by some as an absolute asbestos exclusion.  Just as with asbestos, there are infirmities in the pollution exclusion as applied to carbon dioxide (such as the doctrine of reasonable expectations, whether carbon dioxide is reasonably understood to be an irritant or contaminant, whether an agency’s classification of carbon dioxide as a “pollutant” has any relevance to a contract between two private parties, among others).  Indeed, one state supreme court has found that exhaled carbon dioxide was not a pollutant, and thus was not excluded by a comprehensive general liability policy’s absolute pollution exclusion.  Donaldson v. Urban Land Interests, Inc., 564 N.W.2d 728, 732 (Wis. 1997).  Unless carbon dioxide liability suits disappear (and the last month is not auspicious in that regard), it is inevitable that more coverage disputes will unfold and that policyholders will secure coverage victories in some cases.  Against the backdrop of those victories, can it be doubted that a carbon dioxide exclusion will take shape? 1We note that the term “absolute “ is somewhat of a misnomer for any exclusion.  A valuable discussion of this can be found at Ira Gottlieb, The Decline of the So-Called ‘Absolute’ Pollution Exclusion, Mealey’s Litig. Rep. (Feb. 12, 2002).

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change | Insurance | Legislation | Renewable Energy

McCARTER & ENGLISH CLIMATE CHANGE AND RENEWABLE ENERGY PRACTICE GROUP

The business case for the development of renewable energy projects, from biodiesel and ethanol to wind, solar, and distributed generation, is more compelling than ever as tax and regulatory incentives combine to attract investments. Emerging issues in environmental law and increasingly recognized principles of corporate social responsibility are encouraging public companies to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions, install clean energy alternatives, and invest overseas in projects under the Kyoto Protocol to respond to climate change concerns.

Click here for more information and a list of our group members.

MONTH LIST

© 2017 McCarter & English, LLP. All Rights Reserved. disclaimer
navbottom image