A federal court in the District of Columbia has dismissed a lawsuit filed by California teenagers and environmental groups against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) alleging that the agency violated its fiduciary duty to preserve and protect the atmosphere under the public trust doctrine. Alec L. v. Jackson, No. 11-2235 (D.D.C. 5/31/12).

Plaintiff asked the court to declare the atmosphere a commonly shared public resource under that doctrine and order EPA to adopt a plan for an immediate cap on greenhouse gas (GHG ) emissions and lower emissions by 6 percent a year starting in 2013. EPA, along with intervenors including the National Association of Manufacturers and several California companies and trade associations, moved to dismiss, arguing that the public trust doctrine was a matter of state not federal law and that plaintiffs’ claims were preempted by the Clean Air Act (CAA).  

The court ruled that the public trust doctrine was indeed a matter of state rather than federal law, thus the court lacked jurisdiction over the complaint. In the alternative, the court noted that, “even if the public trust doctrine had been a federal common law claim,” the CAA had displaced it. The court cited American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, 131 S. Ct. 2527 (2011), for the proposition that the CAA displaces any federal common law right to seek action limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Here, the court said, plaintiffs are seeking to have the court mandate that a federal agency undertake specific regulatory activities, even if it is not required by any statute enacted by Congress. Environmental Groups Sue EPA