2 minute read

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. Energy Resources Commission

Pacific Gas Takes On The Energy Commission

Responding to these concerns, in 1974 the State of California passed the Warren-Alquist State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Act. Under the act, which was amended in 1976 to add new regulations, operators of nuclear power plants and other power-generating plants had to apply for certification by the State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission, or "Energy Commission" for short. Out of the myriad statutes covered in the act, sections 25524.1(b) and 25524.2 became the subject of debate in the case before the Court. Section 25524.1(b) provided that the Energy Commission had the authority to determine, prior to the building of a new nuclear power plant, that there would be adequate storage space for the spent fuel rods "at the time such nuclear facility requires such storage." Section 25524.2 addressed long-term concerns arising from nuclear wastes by placing a moratorium, or stoppage, on the certification of new plants until the Energy Commission "finds that there has been developed and that the United States through its authorized agency has approved and there exists a demonstrated technology or means for the disposal of high-level nuclear waste."

In 1978, Pacific Gas & Electric Company, along with another utility, Southern California Edison Company, filed an action against the Energy Commission in federal district court. They requested a declaration that several provisions in the Warren-Alquist Act--including the two mentioned above--were invalid under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which establishes the importance of the federal government's power over that of the states. Since Washington already had the Atomic Energy Act in place, the petitioners charged, Warren-Alquist had to be unconstitutional. The district court agreed.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the petitioners had standing to challenge the statute, but that 25524.1(b) was not "ripe for review"--i.e., the law had not been allowed sufficient tests in practice before its judicial review. The reason given for this was that "we cannot know whether the Energy Commission will ever find a nuclear plant's storage capacity to be inadequate." As for the challenge to 25524.2, the court judged that the nuclear moratorium provisions were not preempted by federal law because sections 271 and 274(k) of the Atomic Energy Act provided authorization for the states to regulate nuclear power plants "for purposes other than protection against radiation hazards."

As the case came before the Supreme Court, a number of parties filed briefs of amici curiae (friends of the court) on either side. Deputy Solicitor General Claiborne argued for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal, and the following entities filed briefs on the side of the petitioner: the Atomic Industrial Forum, Hans A. Bethe et al., the Edison Electric Institute, the Fusion Energy Foundation, the Legal Foundation of America, and the Pacific Legal Foundation et al. A number of states, through their attorneys general or other officials, filed briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. In all, 31 states weighed in on the side of California, as did that state's Public Utilities Commission and the New England Legal Foundation.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Pacific Gas Electric Co. v. Energy Resources Commission - "swords Into Plowshares", Pacific Gas Takes On The Energy Commission, An Economic Issue, Not A Safety Issue