On 25 November 2021, a group of women from the city of Huasco, alongside Doris Zamorano, a member of a civil society organization in Huasco, brought a constitutional action against Chile’s omission in coordinating the early closure of two coal-fired power plants. The Chilean government had signed closure agreements with owners of various thermoelectric power plants, but the two plants in question were absent from these agreements. They would be subject to the general clause requiring closure of all coal-fired power plants by the year 2040. The petitioners argued the emissions from the powerplants and the uncertainty as to their closure in advance of the year 2040 contributes to interferences with their exercise and enjoyment of fundamental rights. In particular, they point to the governmental authorities’ awareness about the persistent local air pollution and treatment of Huasco as a ‘sacrifice zone,’ as well as Chile’s climate mitigation commitments.
On 2 May 2022, the Court of Appeals of Copiapo dismissed the petition on the ground that adjudication of the issues raised by the petitioners was beyond its competence. The petitioners have filed an appeal against this decision before the Supreme Court of Chile.
The applicants argue that the State’s omissions consist in its failure to close two coal-fired power plants, failure to justify the exclusion of the two power plants from the list of plants due to be closed earlier than 2040 pursuant to its climate policy, and toleration of emissions from the two power plants despite no compensation being granted for the negative environmental impacts from their operation. The petition alleges that these omissions violate their constitutional rights to equality, to life, physical and psychological liberty, to an environment free from contamination, and to the protection of their health, as well as a breach of the State’s administrative duty not to act arbitrarily. In support of the latter contention, the petitioners relied on the administrative law principles of service of the human person, coordination between State organs and the environmental principles of prevention and precaution. Further, they argued that the normative content of the State’s duty were to be informed by Sustainable Development Goals, International Labour Organisation Guidelines on Just Transition, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Paris Agreement and Chile’s 2020 NDC Communication under the Paris Agreement. By way of evidence, the petitioners relied on reports of high levels of air pollution in the city of Huasco, and a comparative analysis of morbidity rates and incidences of respiratory illnesses in Huasco and Caldera, a similar city that was not in the vicinity of coal-fired power plants.
The petitioners requested the Court of Appeals of Copiapo to order the concerned state organs to (i) establish and implement a plan to effect the early closure of the two power plants, and (ii) establish a compensation plan for historical and current emissions of the power plants to redress the environmental and health-related impacts.
In his reply, the Minister of Energy challenged the appropriateness of a judicial review of complex public policies which were the result of a democratic and representative participative process. The Minister also elaborated on the procedural history and content of the government’s policy on decarbonisation, and the limits of the legal competences of the various Ministries vis-à-vis regulation of private actors in the energy sector, to rebut the petitioners’ arguments about the State’s breach of administrative duties. The reply submitted by the Minister of Environment argued that there is no omission attributable to the Ministry of the Environment since regulation of power plants falls within the authority of the Ministry of Energy, and that environmental management instruments were enacted to improve the air quality in Huasco. The Minister of Health submitted a similar reply. The Undersecretary General of the Presidency argued that State authorities lack the power to order the early closure of the said power plants, and that all of the authorities named in the petition had taken relevant measures in relation to the factual situation described by the petitioners.
On 2 May 2022, the Court of Appeals of Copiapo rendered its decision wherein it rejected the petition. The Court noted that petitioners’ action for constitutional review of the State’s omission suggests that they disagree with its actions which form part of the public policy on decarbonisation of the country. However, this policy was developed and implemented with the participation of various state organs (with the Ministry of Energy being at the head of them) and it is not for the Court to substitute itself for them and order a replacement or modification of such policy. The Court also noted the involvement of non-State stakeholders, including both actors from the industry and civil society, in the establishment of the decarbonisation policy.
Additionally, with respect to closure of power plants, the Court noted that State organs do not have the authority to demand closures and that such an outcome can only be achieved through agreements between the State and the concerned owners of the power plants. The Court concluded that the fact that the agreement concluded between the State and the owner of the two power plants in question does not envisage a concrete plan for their closure, as it does for some other power plants, does not evince arbitrariness.
The case documents are accessible via Climate Case Chart (click here).
Status of the case:
The case is pending in appeal before the Supreme Court of Chile.
08 August 2023.