Justice Souter, delivered the opinion of the Court.
The State of Ohio imposes its general sales and use taxes on natural gas purchases from all sellers, whether in-state or
During the tax period at issue,
Since 1935, when Ohio's first sales and use taxes were imposed, the State has exempted natural gas sales by "natural gas compan[ies]" from all state and local sales taxes. § 5739.02(B)(7).
The very question of such an exclusion, and consequent taxation of gas sales or use, reflects a recent stage of evolution in the structure of the natural gas industry. Traditionally, the industry was divisible into three relatively distinct segments: producers, interstate pipelines, and LDC's. This market structure was possible largely because the Natural Gas Act of 1938 (NGA), 52 Stat. 821, 15 U. S. C. § 717 et seq., failed to require interstate pipelines to offer transportation services to third parties wishing to ship gas. As a result, "interstate pipelines [were able] to use their monopoly power over gas transportation to create and maintain monopsony power in the market for the purchase of gas at the wellhead and monopoly power in the market for the sale of gas to LDCs." Pierce, The Evolution of Natural Gas Regulatory Policy, 10 Nat. Resources & Env't 53, 53-54 (Summer 1995) (hereinafter Pierce). For the most part, then, producers sold their gas to the pipelines, which resold it to utilities, which in turn provided local distribution to consumers. See, e. g., Associated Gas Distributors v. FERC, 824 F.2d 981, 993 (CADC 1987), cert. denied, 485 U.S. 1006 (1988); Mogel & Gregg, Appropriateness of Imposing Common Carrier Status on Interstate Natural Gas Pipelines, 4 Energy L. J. 155, 157 (1983).
Congress took a first step toward increasing competition in the natural gas market by enacting the Natural Gas Policy Act of 1978, 92 Stat. 3350, 15 U. S. C. § 3301 et seq., which was designed to phase out regulation of wellhead prices charged by producers of natural gas, and to "promote gas transportation by interstate and intrastate pipelines" for third parties. 57 Fed. Reg. 13271 (1992). Pipelines were reluctant to provide common carriage, however, when doing so would displace their own sales, see Associated Gas Distributors v. FERC, supra, at 993, and in 1985, the Federal
Although FERC did not take the further step of requiring intrastate pipelines to provide local transportation services to ensure that gas sold by producers and independent marketers could get all the way to the point of consumption,
This new market structure led to the question whether purchases from non-LDC sellers of natural gas qualified for the state sales tax exemption under Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 5739.02(B)(7) (Supp. 1990). In Chrysler Corp. v. Tracy, the Ohio Supreme Court held that they do not. The court reasoned that independent marketers do not "suppl[y]" natural gas as required by § 5727.01(D)(4), because they do "not own or control any physical assets to . . . distribute natural gas." 73 Ohio St. 3d, at 28, 652 N. E. 2d, at 187. This determination of state law led in turn to the case before us now.
During the tax period in question here, petitioner General Motors Corporation (GMC) bought virtually all the natural gas for its Ohio plants from out-of-state marketers, not LDC's.
Finally, the court dismissed GMC's equal protection claim as "submerged in its Commerce Clause argument." Id., at 31-32, 652 N. E. 2d, at 190. We granted GMC's petition for certiorari to address the question of standing as well as the Commerce and Equal Protection Clause issues. 517 U.S. 1118 (1996).
The Supreme Court of Ohio held GMC to be without standing to raise this Commerce Clause challenge because the company is not one of the sellers said to suffer discrimination under the challenged tax laws. But cognizable injury from unconstitutional discrimination against interstate commerce does not stop at members of the class against whom a State ultimately discriminates, and customers of that class may also be injured, as in this case where the customer is liable for payment of the tax and as a result presumably pays more for the gas it gets from out-of-state producers and marketers. Consumers who suffer this sort of injury from regulation forbidden under the Commerce Clause satisfy the standing requirements of Article III. See generally Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-561 (1992).
The negative or dormant implication of the Commerce Clause prohibits state taxation, see, e. g., Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298, 312-313 (1992), or regulation, see, e. g., Brown-Forman Distillers Corp. v. New York State Liquor Authority, 476 U.S. 573, 578-579 (1986), that discriminates against or unduly burdens interstate commerce and thereby "imped[es] free private trade in the national marketplace," Reeves, Inc. v. Stake, 447 U.S. 429, 437 (1980). GMC claims that Ohio's differential tax treatment of natural gas sales by marketers and regulated local utilities constitutes "facial" or "patent" discrimination in violation of the Commerce Clause, and it argues that differences in the nature of the businesses of LDC's and interstate marketers
Since before the Civil War, gas manufactured from coal and other commodities had been used for lighting purposes, and of course it was understood that natural gas could be used the same way. See Dorner, Initial Phases of Regulation of the Gas Industry, in 1 Regulation of the Gas Industry §§ 2.03-2.06 (American Gas Assn. 1996) (hereinafter Dorner). By the early years of this century, areas in "proximity to the gas field[s]," West v. Kansas Natural Gas Co., 221 U.S. 229, 246 (1911), did use natural gas for fuel, but it was not until the 1920's that the development of high-tensile steel and electric welding permitted construction of high-pressure pipelines to transport natural gas from gas fields for distant consumption at relatively low cost. Pierce 53. By that time, the States' then-recent experiments with free market competition in the manufactured gas and electricity industries had dramatically underscored the need for comprehensive regulation of the local gas market. Companies supplying manufactured gas proliferated in the latter half of the 19th century
Almost as soon as the States began regulating natural gas retail monopolies, their power to do so was challenged by interstate vendors as inconsistent with the dormant Commerce Clause. While recognizing the interstate character of commerce in natural gas, the Court nonetheless affirmed the States' power to regulate, as a matter of local concern, all direct sales of gas to consumers within their borders, absent congressional prohibition of such state regulation. See, e. g., Pennsylvania Gas Co. v. Public Serv. Comm'n of N. Y., 252 U.S. 23, 28-31 (1920); Public Util. Comm'n of Kan. v. Landon, 249 U.S. 236, 245-246 (1919). At the same time, the Court concluded that the dormant Commerce Clause prevents the States from regulating interstate transportation or sales for resale of natural gas. See, e. g., Missouri ex rel. Barrett v. Kansas Natural Gas Co., 265 U.S. 298, 307-310 (1924); Pennsylvania v. West Virginia, 262 U.S. 553, 596— 600, reaffirmed on rehearing, 263 U.S. 350 (1923). See generally Illinois Natural Gas Co. v. Central Ill. Public Service Co., 314 U.S. 498, 504-505 (1942) (summarizing prior cases distinguishing between permissible and impermissible state regulation of commerce in natural gas). Thus, the Court never questioned the power of the States to regulate retail
When federal regulation of the natural gas industry finally began in 1938, Congress, too, clearly recognized the value of such state-regulated monopoly arrangements for the sale and distribution of natural gas directly to local consumers. Thus, § 1(b) of the NGA, 15 U. S. C. § 717(b), explicitly exempted "local distribution of natural gas" from federal regulation, even as the NGA authorized the Federal Power
And Congress once again acknowledged the important role of the States in regulating intrastate transportation and distribution of natural gas in 1953 when, in the wake of a decision of this Court permitting the FPC to regulate intrastate gas transportation by LDC's, see FPC v. East Ohio Gas Co., 338 U.S. 464 (1950), Congress amended the NGA to "leav[e] jurisdiction" over "companies engaged in the distribution" of natural gas "exclusively in the States, as always has been intended." S. Rep. No. 817, 83d Cong., 1st Sess., 1-2 (1953); see 15 U. S. C. § 717(c).
For 40 years, the complementary federal regulation of the interstate market and congressionally approved state regulation of the intrastate gas trade thus endured unchanged in any way relevant to this case. The resulting market structure virtually precluded competition between LDC's and other potential suppliers of natural gas for direct sales to consumers, including large industrial consumers. The simplicity of this dual system of federal and state regulation began to erode in 1978, however, when Congress first encouraged interstate pipelines to provide transportation services to end users wishing to ship gas,
To this day, all 50 States recognize the need to regulate utilities engaged in local distribution of natural gas.
The State also required LDC's to serve all members of the public, without discrimination, throughout their fields of operations. See, e. g., Industrial Gas Co. v. Public Utilities Comm'n of Ohio, 135 Ohio St. 408, 21 N.E.2d 166 (1939). They could not "pick out good portions of a particular territory, serve only select customers under private contract, and refuse service . . . to . . . other users," id., at 413, 21 N. E. 2d, at 168, or terminate service except for reasons defined by statute and by following statutory procedures, Ohio Rev. Code Ann. §§ 4933.12, 4933.121 (Supp. 1990). When serving "human needs" consumers including "residential [and] other customers . . . where the element of human welfare [was] the predominant factor," In re Commission Ordered Investigation of the Availability of Gas Transportation Service Provided by Ohio Gas Distribution Utilities to End-Use Customers, No. 85-800—GA—COI (Ohio Pub. Util. Comm'n, Aug. 1, 1989), Ohio LDC's were required to provide a firm backup supply of gas, see ibid., and administer specific protective schemes, as by helping to assure a degree of continued service to low-income customers despite unpaid bills. See, e. g., Ohio Admin. Code 4901:1-18 (Ohio Monthly Record Nov. 1991).
The fact that the local utilities continue to provide a product consisting of gas bundled with the services and protections summarized above, a product thus different from the marketer's unbundled gas, raises a hurdle for GMC's claim
Conceptually, of course, any notion of discrimination
See also, e. g., Wyoming v. Oklahoma, 502 U.S. 437, 469 (1992) (Scalia, J., dissenting) ("Our negative Commerce Clause jurisprudence grew out of the notion that the Constitution implicitly established a national free market . . ."); Reeves, Inc. v. Stake, 447 U. S., at 437 (The dormant Commerce Clause prevents "state taxes and regulatory measures impeding free private trade in the national marketplace"); Hunt v. Washington State Apple Advertising Comm'n, 432 U.S. 333, 350 (1977) (referring to "the Commerce Clause's overriding requirement of a national `common market' "). Thus, in the absence of actual or prospective competition between the supposedly favored and disfavored entities in a single market there can be no local preference, whether by express discrimination against interstate commerce or undue burden upon it, to which the dormant Commerce Clause may apply. The dormant Commerce Clause protects markets and participants in markets, not taxpayers as such.
Our cases have, however, rarely discussed the comparability of taxed or regulated entities as operators in arguably distinct markets; the closest approach to the facts here occurred in Alaska v. Arctic Maid, 366 U.S. 199 (1961). In Arctic Maid, a 4% tax on the value of salmon taken from territorial waters by so-called freezer ships and frozen for transport and later canning outside the State was challenged as discriminatory in the face of a 1% tax on the value of fish taken from territorial waters and frozen by on-shore cold storage facilities for later sale on the domestic fresh-frozen fish market. The State prevailed on the Court's holding that the claimants and cold storage facilities served separate markets, did not compete with one another, and thus could not properly be compared for Commerce Clause purposes. The proper comparison, the Court held, was between the freezer
Arctic Maid provides a partial analogy to this case. Here, natural gas marketers did not serve the Ohio LDCs' core market of small, captive users, typified by residential consumers who want and need the bundled product. See, e. g., Darr, A State Regulatory Strategy for the Transitional Phase of Gas Regulation, 12 Yale J. Reg. 69, 99 (1995) ("[T]he large core residential customer base is bound to the LDC in what currently appears to be a natural-monopoly relationship"); App. 199 (a marketer from which GMC purchased gas does not hold itself out to the general public as a gas supplier, but rather selectively contacts industrial end users that it has identified as potentially profitable customers). While this captive market is not geographically distinguished from the area served by the independent marketers, it is defined economically as comprising consumers who are captive to the need for bundled benefits. These are buyers who live on sufficiently tight budgets to make the stability of rate important, and who cannot readily bear the risk of losing a fuel supply in harsh natural or economic weather. See, e. g., Consolidated Edison Co. of N. Y. v. FERC, 676 F.2d 763, 766, n. 5 (CADC 1982) ("[R]esidential users [of natural gas cannot] switch temporarily to other fuels and so they must endure cold homes" if their gas supply is interrupted); Samuels, Reliability of Natural Gas Service for Captive
On the other hand, one circumstance of this case is unlike what Arctic Maid assumed, for there is a possibility of competition between LDC's and marketers for the noncaptive market. Although the record before this Court reveals virtually nothing about the details of that competitive market, in the period under examination it presumably included bulk buyers like GMC, which have no need for bundled protection, see, e. g., State Issue: Atlanta Gas Light Takes Step to Abandon Gas Sales by Unbundling Services for Non-Core Customers, Foster Natural Gas Report, June 20, 1996, p. 22 (indicating that prior to "unbundling" marketers accounted for 80% of sales to large commercial and industrial users in Georgia), and consumers of middling volumes of natural gas who found
In sum, the LDCs' bundled product reflects the demand of a market neither susceptible to competition by the interstate sellers nor likely to be served except by the regulated natural monopolies that have historically supplied its needs. So far as this market is concerned, competition would not be served by eliminating any tax differential as between sellers, and the dormant Commerce Clause has no job to do. There is, however, a further market where the respective sellers of the bundled and unbundled products apparently do compete and may compete further. Thus, the question raised by this case is whether the opportunities for competition between marketers and LDC's in the noncaptive market requires treating marketers and utilities as alike for dormant Commerce Clause purposes. Should we accord controlling significance to the noncaptive market in which they compete, or to the noncompetitive, captive market in which the local utilities
Where a choice is possible, as it is here, the importance of traditional regulated service to the captive market makes a powerful case against any judicial treatment that might jeopardize LDCs' continuing capacity to serve the captive market. Largely as a response to the monopolistic shakeout that brought an end to the era of unbridled competition among gas utilities, regulation of natural gas for the principal benefit of householders and other consumers of relatively small quantities is the rule in every State in the Union. Congress has also long recognized the desirability of these state regulatory regimes. Supra, at 291-293. Indeed, half a century ago we concluded that the NGA altogether exempts state regulation of retail sales of natural gas (including in-state sales to large industrial customers) from the strictures of the dormant Commerce Clause, see Panhandle Eastern Pipe Line Co. v. Public Serv. Comm'n of Ind., 332 U.S. 507 (1947), and to this day, notwithstanding the national regulatory revolution, Congress has done nothing to limit its unbroken recognition of the state regulatory authority that
This Court has also recognized the importance of avoiding any jeopardy to service of the state-regulated captive market, and in circumstances remarkably similar to those of the present case. In Panhandle Eastern Pipe Line Co. v. Michigan Pub. Serv. Comm'n, 341 U.S. 329 (1951), Ford Motor Company had entered a contract with an interstate pipeline for supply of gas at Ford's plant in Dearborn, Michigan, thus bypassing the local distribution company. The Michigan Public Service Commission ordered the pipeline to cease and desist from making direct sales of natural gas to the State's industrial customers without a certificate of public convenience and necessity, and the pipeline brought a Commerce Clause challenge to the commission's action. The Court observed that
The continuing importance of the States' interest in protecting the captive market from the effects of competition for the largest consumers is underscored by the common sense of our traditional recognition of the need to accommodate state health and safety regulation in applying dormant Commerce Clause principles. State regulation of natural gas sales to consumers serves important interests in health and safety in fairly obvious ways, in that requirements of dependable supply and extended credit assure that individual buyers of gas for domestic purposes are not frozen out of their houses in the cold months. We have consistently recognized the legitimate state pursuit of such interests as compatible with the Commerce Clause, which was "`never intended to cut the States off from legislating on all subjects relating to the health, life, and safety of their citizens, though the legislation might indirectly affect the commerce of the country.' " Huron Portland Cement Co. v. Detroit, 362 U.S. 440,
The size of the captive market, its noncompetitive character, the values served by its traditional regulation: all counsel caution before making a choice that could strain the capacity of the States to continue to demand the regulatory benefits that have served the home market of low-volume users since natural gas became readily available. Here we have to assume that any decision to treat the LDC's as similar to the interstate marketers would change the LDCs' position in the noncaptive market in which (we are assuming) they compete, at least at the margins, by affecting the overall size of the LDCs' customer base. As we recognized in Panhandle, a change in the customer base could affect the LDCs' ability to continue to serve the captive market where there is no such competition.
To be sure, what in fact would happen as a result of treating the marketers and LDC's alike we do not know. We might assume that eliminating the tax on marketers' sales would leave those sellers stronger competitors in the noncaptive market, especially at the market's boundaries, and that any resulting contraction of the LDCs' total customer base would increase the unit cost of the bundled product. We might also suppose that the State would not respond to our decision by subjecting the LDC's and marketers both to the
The degree to which these very general suggestions might prove right or wrong, however, is not really significant; the point is simply that all of them are nothing more than suggestions, pointedly couched in terms of assumption or supposition. This is necessarily so, simply because the Court is institutionally unsuited to gather the facts upon which economic predictions can be made, and professionally untrained to make them. See, e. g., Fulton Corp. v. Faulkner, 516 U. S., at 341-342, and authorities cited therein; Hunter, Federalism and State Taxation of Multistate Enterprises, 32 Emory L. J. 89, 108 (1983) ("It is virtually impossible for a court, with its limited resources, to determine with any degree of accuracy the costs to a town, county, or state of a particular industry"); see also Smith, State Discriminations Against Interstate Commerce, 74 Calif. L. Rev. 1203, 1211 (1986) (noting that "[e]ven expert economists" may have difficulty determining "whether the overall economic benefits
Prudence thus counsels against running the risk of weakening or destroying a regulatory scheme of public service and protection recognized by Congress despite its noncompetitive, monopolistic character. Still less is that risk justifiable in light of Congress's own power and institutional competence to decide upon and effectuate any desirable changes in the scheme that has evolved. Congress has the capacity to investigate and analyze facts beyond anything the Judiciary could match, joined with the authority of the commerce power to run economic risks that the Judiciary should confront only when the constitutional or statutory mandate for judicial choice is clear. See, e. g., Bush v. Lucas, 462 U.S. 367, 389 (1983) (Congress "may inform itself through factfinding procedures such as hearings that are not available to the courts"). One need not adopt Justice Black's extreme reticence in Commerce Clause jurisprudence to recognize in this instance the soundness of his statement that a challenge
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Accordingly, we conclude that Ohio's regulatory response to the needs of the local natural gas market has resulted in a noncompetitive bundled gas product that distinguishes its regulated sellers from independent marketers to the point that the enterprises should not be considered "similarly situated" for purposes of a claim of facial discrimination under the Commerce Clause. GMC's argument that the State discriminates between regulated local gas utilities and unregulated marketers must therefore fail.
GMC also suggests that Ohio's tax regime "facially discriminates" because the State's sales and use tax exemption would not apply to sales by out-of-state LDC's. See, e. g. , Reply Brief for Petitioner 2, n. 1. As respondent points out, however, the Ohio courts might well extend the challenged exemption to out-of-state utilities if confronted with the question. Indeed, in Carnegie Natural Gas Co. v. Tracy, No. 94—K-526 (Ohio Bd. Tax App., Nov. 17, 1995), reported in CCH Ohio Tax Rep. ¶ 402-254, the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals accepted the argument of a Pennsylvania public utility
Finally, GMC claims that Ohio's tax regime violates the Equal Protection Clause by treating LDCs' natural gas sales differently from those of producers and marketers. Once again, the hurdle facing GMC is a high one, since state tax classifications require only a rational basis to satisfy the Equal Protection Clause. See, e. g., Amerada Hess Corp. v. Director, Div. of Taxation, N. J. Dept. of Treasury, 490 U. S., at 80. Indeed, "in taxation, even more than in other fields, legislatures possess the greatest freedom in classification." Madden v. Kentucky, 309 U.S. 83, 88 (1940).
It is true, of course, that in some peculiar circumstances state tax classifications facially discriminating against interstate commerce may violate the Equal Protection Clause even when they pass muster under the Commerce Clause. See Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Ward, 470 U.S. 869, 874— 883 (1985).
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We conclude that Ohio's differential tax treatment of public utilities and independent marketers violates neither the Commerce Clause nor the Equal Protection Clause and that petitioner's claims are without merit otherwise. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Ohio is affirmed.
I have previously stated that I will enforce on stare decisis grounds a "negative" self-executing Commerce Clause in two situations: (1) against a state law that facially discriminates against interstate commerce, and (2) against a state law that is indistinguishable from a type of law previously held unconstitutional by this Court. West Lynn Creamery, Inc. v. Healy, 512 U.S. 186, 210 (1994) (opinion concurring in judgment); Intel Containers Int'l Corp. v. Huddleston, 507 U.S. 60, 78 (1993) (opinion concurring in part and concurring in
Justice Stevens, dissenting.
In Ohio, as in other States, regulated utilities selling natural gas—referred to by the Court as "LDC's"—operate in two markets, one that is monopolistic and one that is competitive.
In the first, they sell a "noncompetitive bundled gas product," ante, at 310, to small consumers who have no practical alternative source of supply. The LDCs' dominant position in that market justifies detailed regulation of their activities in order to protect consumers from the risk of exploitation by a seller with monopoly power. See ante, at 294-297. The basic purpose of that regulation is to protect consumers, not to subsidize the LDC's.
The second market in which LDC's sell natural gas is a competitive market in which large customers like the General Motors Corporation (GMC) have alternative sources of supply. Although Ohio possesses undoubted power to regulate the activities of all sellers in that market, Panhandle Eastern Pipe Line Co. v. Michigan Pub. Serv. Comm'n, 341 U.S. 329 (1951), it has not done so in any manner relevant here. The purchasers in this competitive market do not need the protections afforded by the state regulation of the monopolistic market, see ante, at 302-303, and the benefits provided by these regulations will thus not affect a competitive
It is not uncommon for a firm with a monopolistic position in one market also to sell a second product in a competitive market. See, e. g., International Business Machines Corp. v. United States, 298 U.S. 131 (1936). Even regulated monopolies such as electric utilities may distribute goods, such as light bulbs, in a competitive market. See, e. g., Cantor v. Detroit Edison Co., 428 U.S. 579 (1976). There is no reason why an LDC might not develop a product line, such as thermostats or gas furnaces, to sell in the competitive market for such products. I do not believe that the fact that the LDC is heavily regulated in the "bundled gas" market would justify granting it a special preference in the market for thermostats or gas furnaces. Nor do I discern a significant relevant difference between competition in "unbundled gas" and competition in thermostats or gas furnaces.
It may well be true that without a discriminatory tax advantage in the competitive market, the LDC's would lose business to interstate competitors and therefore be forced to increase the rates charged to small local consumers. This circumstance may require the States to find new, and nondiscriminatory, methods for accommodating the needs of small
Accordingly, while I agree with Parts II and IV of the Court's opinion, I respectfully dissent from the judgment.
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the State of Kansas et al. by Carla J. Stovall, Attorney General of Kansas, and Stephen R. McAllister, Special Assistant Attorney General, and by the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows: Daniel E. Lungren of California, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, James E. Ryan of Illinois, Frankie Sue Del Papa of Nevada, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, James S. Gilmore III of Virginia, and Darrell V. McGraw, Jr., of West Virginia; for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners by William Paul Rodgers, Jr.; and for Columbia Gas of Ohio, Inc., by Kenneth W. Christman.
Paull Mines and Richard D. Pomp filed a brief for the Multistate Tax Commission as amicus curiae.