States Sue Top Five U.S. Global-Warming Polluters

Iowa and seven other states file lawsuit seeking dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Rod Swoboda

Published on: Jul 23, 2004

Citing the risk to agriculture and human health, state officials representing eight states have filed a lawsuit against the five largest carbon dioxide polluters in the United States. The effort is aimed at requiring power companies to stabilize and then reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Making the announcement in Des Moines at a press conference July 21, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller was joined by Elwynn Taylor, Iowa State University Extension Climatologist. Both Miller and Taylor emphasized the risk global warming poses to agriculture.

Taylor has estimated that global warming already consistently is costing Iowa about half a billion dollars a year in reduced corn yield. Taylor said that one of the results of global warming is erratic weather, which leads to erratic yields, and lower average yields.

Iowa, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin, and the City of New York filed suit against what Miller says are the five largest global warming polluters in the United States. They are power companies that own or operate more than 170 fossil fuel-burning power plants and emit about 10T of the nation's carbon dioxide pollution.

Global warming threatens agriculture

"Global warming threatens Iowa as we know it today," says Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. "The Earth is heating faster than at any time in history, and that poses enormous long-term risk to Iowa agriculture and Iowans' health."

"The risks are especially great for Iowa agriculture," says Miller. "Most scientists believe global warming is likely to cause more extreme weather conditions of various kinds in North America, with hotter heat waves, longer and more frequent drought, and more severe storms.

"We shouldn't just be rolling the dice and hoping for the best," adds Miller. "We need to act to protect our agriculture and our people."

"The problem is pollution, and the top source of pollution is carbon dioxide emissions from power plants," says Miller. "Our suit names the five U.S. power companies with the most carbon dioxide pollution, totaling hundreds of millions of tons per year. The suit demands that they make pollution reductions that are substantial and achievable. My goal is to protect the bountiful Iowa we know today, and preserve it for generations to come."

Already costing farm states a lot in lost yield

ISU Extension Climatologist and Professor of Agricultural Meteorology, Elwynn Taylor, also spoke at the press conference.

"The first sector to take a hit from global warming is agriculture," says Taylor. "Iowa and Kansas could feel it hardest because of our dependence on agriculture. Erratic, sharp weather fluctuations - a likely consequence of global warming - lead to wide extremes in crop yield. I've estimated that global warming already consistently is costing about half a billion dollars a year in reduced corn yield to Iowa alone. And the effect on beans is likely similar."

Companies named as defendants in the States' and NYC action are American Electric Power Company; the Southern Company; Tennessee Valley Authority; Xcel Energy Inc.; and Cinergy Corporation. (See below for company details.)

Together, the companies own or operate 174 fossil fuel burning power plants in 20 states that emit some 650 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, according to the suit - almost a quarter of the U.S. utility industry's annual carbon dioxide emissions and about 10% of the nation's total. The action calls on the companies to reduce their pollution; it does not seek monetary damages.

Suit seeks to reduce pollution, doesn't ask for money

The case was filed July 21 in federal district court in New York under the federal common law of public nuisance, which provides a right of action to curb air and water pollution emanating from sources in other states. Public nuisance is a well-established legal doctrine that is commonly invoked in environmental cases and forms the basis for much of today's modern environmental law.

Scientists say the Earth is warming faster today than at any time in human history, and more rapidly than any natural factors can explain, states the lawsuit. The most recent data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that 2003 tied 2002 as the second hottest year on record, following 1998. The 5 hottest years all have occurred since 1997 and the 10 hottest since 1990.

The lawsuit marks the first time state and local governments have sued private companies to require reduction in heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions that scientists say pose serious threats to public health, economy and environment.

The suit alleges the defendant companies' emissions contribute to a harm borne by all members of the public. The states as sovereign governments and the City of New York have the right to protect their residents and properties from such widespread harm.

Will this lawsuit be costly to taxpayers?

Miller says he doesn't expect significant litigation costs for Iowa to participate in the lawsuit.

The States and NYC say they are bringing suit because global warming is a serious threat to communities and the environment in the states, and that the effects of global warming will become increasingly severe if emissions are not reduced. Damages from global warming include public health consequences such as more asthma and other respiratory disease, increased heatstroke and heat-related mortality. "Iowa's high percentage of older persons could be especially vulnerable to adverse health consequences made worse by global warming," says Miller.

A report prepared by the National Academy of Sciences at the request of President Bush in 2001 reaffirmed widespread consensus that carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping emissions are responsible for global warming. Experts say that if nothing is done to cut emissions, average global temperatures will rise between 3 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, conceivably half again the temperature change between the last glacial epoch and the present, according to Taylor. By comparison, the difference in global average temperature between now and the last ice age was only 7-11 degrees Fahrenheit.

Biomass and other solutions to pollution

The states argue that readily-available solutions to reduce carbon dioxide pollution include increased efficiency of coal-burning plants, switching from coal to cleaner-burning fuels, greater use of biomass energy derived from plants, investment in energy conservation, and use of clean energy sources like wind and solar power. Clean coal technologies also are emerging that allow carbon dioxide to be removed from coal-fired power plant smokestacks.

Federal studies indicate that electric power producers, the largest global warming polluters, present the best opportunity for significant and cost-effective reductions of carbon dioxide pollution. Scientists say that since carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, the longer the delay before significant cuts are made, the sharper and deeper the cuts will need to be.

Who is being sued?

Here's a list of the defendants. The suit describes them as America's Top 5 Global Warming Polluters (defined by carbon dioxide emissions from company-owned or operated power plants)

#1: American Electric Power Company, Inc. (AEP) / American Electric Power Service Corp. Estimated annual CO2 Emissions: 226 million tons, 2003 Reported Revenue: $15.6 billion. AEP controls 12 utility companies including Appalachian Power, Columbus Southern Power, Indiana Michigan Power, Kentucky Power, Kingsport Power, Ohio Power, Public Service Company of Oklahoma, Southwestern Electric Power, AEP Texas Central, AEP Texas North, Wheeling Power and AEP Generating. AEP owns or operates fossil fuel-fired power plants in 11 states including Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.

#2: The Southern Company (SO). Estimated annual CO2 Emissions: 171 million tons, 2003 Reported Revenue: $11.28 billion. The Southern Company controls five utility firms, including Alabama Power, Georgia Power, Gulf Power, Mississippi Power and Savannah Electric & Power. Southern owns or operates fossil fuel-fired power plants in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Georgia.

#3: Tennessee Valley Authority. Estimated annual CO2 Emissions: 110 million tons. 2003 Reported Revenue: $6.95 billion. TVA is a federal corporation that owns and operates fossil fuel-fired power plants in Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi.

#4: Xcel Energy Inc. (XEL) . Estimated annual CO2 Emissions: 75 million tons. 2003 Reported Revenue: $7.9 billion. Xcel controls five utility firms, including Northern States Power of Minnesota; Northern States Power of Wisconsin; Public Service Company of Colorado; and Southwestern Public Service. Xcel owns or operates fossil fuel-fired power plants in Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin.

#5: Cinergy Corp. (CIN). Estimated annual CO2 Emissions: 70 million tons. 2003 Reported Revenue: $4.4 billion. Cinergy controls Cincinnati Gas & Electric and PSI Energy, Inc. Cinergy owns or operates fossil fuel-fired power plants in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

EMISSIONS DATA SOURCE: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency eGrid database for year 2000 emissions.