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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday that it would hear an appeal by four big coal-burning utilities of a ruling that a group of states and New York City can proceed with a global-warming lawsuit seeking to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of the power companies.
The justices agreed to review a ruling by a U.S. appeals court that reinstated a 2004 lawsuit by eight states, New York City and three land trusts claiming the utilities have created a public nuisance by contributing to global warming.
American Electric Power Co Inc, Southern Co, Xcel Energy Inc and Cinergy Corp, which Duke Energy Corp acquired in 2006, said in the appeal that the case involved political questions for Congress and the president, not the judiciary.
The states -- California, Connecticut, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin -- and the other plaintiffs urged the top court to reject the appeal by the utilities. That would have allowed the lawsuit to go forward.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case most likely in March, with a ruling expected by the end of June. It will be the most important environmental case of the term, and the biggest since the Supreme Court's ruling in 2007 that U.S. environmental officials can regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
Coal-fired power plants emit about twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas-fired plants. Nuclear power plans emit virtually no greenhouse gases. Scientists say greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide warm the earth by trapping solar heat in the atmosphere.
A federal judge initially dismissed the lawsuit, ruling the question of whether carbon dioxide emissions should be reduced was political, not judicial. But the appeals court disagreed.
The Supreme Court, in agreeing to hear the appeal disregarded the advice of the Obama administration, which represented one of the defendant utilities in the original lawsuit, the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority.
The administration urged the Supreme Court to set aside the appeals court ruling and send the case back to New York for further proceedings to consider recent actions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address carbon dioxide emissions.
Reporting by James Vicini, Editing by Derek Caney and Maureen Bavdek