An important unresolved question is whether non-state plaintiffs have standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution to sue in federal courts in climate change cases. In Massachusetts v. EPA, the Supreme Court held a state government could sue the U.S. government to address climate change issues, and suggested, but did not decide, that private litigants might have lesser rights than states. In Washington Environmental Council v. Bellon, the Ninth Circuit held that private groups did not have standing to challenge Washington State’s failure to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from five oil refineries, and implied that private plaintiffs may never bring climate change suits because such suits are generalized grievances and the Massachusetts exception for GHG suits applies only to states. However, dissenting from the Ninth Circuit’s denial of a rehearing en banc, three judges argued that the panel’s opinion was overly broad in interpreting the Massachusetts decision to deny standing rights to all non-state GHG plaintiffs. In recent district court decisions, two different federal judges concluded that private plaintiffs may have Article III standing to challenge the government’s regulation of climate change or greenhouse gases. In Center for Biological Diversity v. EPA, the Western District of Washington held the plaintiff suffered concrete standing injuries from the defendant EPA’s approval of Washington’s and Oregon’s decisions not to identify any waters experiencing ocean acidification as impaired under the Clean Water Act (CWA). In distinguishing the Washington Environmental Council decision, the district court concluded that the plaintiffs demonstrated local GHG impacts, and local mitigation efforts could partially redress the injuries to their members. In Murray Energy Corporation v. Gina McCarthy, Administrator of EPA, the Northern District of West Virginia concluded that that the plaintiffs sufficiently established that the EPA violated its duty under the Clean Air Act (CAA) to examine the employment impacts of its enforcement and regulations under the Act on employment in the coal mining industry to have standing. The Murray decision’s focus on employment injuries could be used to provide standing in a challenge to GHG regulations. While there is an argument that expanding standing to non-state GHG plaintiffs could flood the federal courts with too many suits, courts can manage the number of climate change suits by requiring a meaningful demonstration of a connection between GHG emissions and harms to the plaintiffs, and by giving substantial deference to reasonable government regulatory policies in this area.
53 San Diego L. Rev. 287 (2016)