Montana to ask state top court to overturn landmark climate ruling

By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) – Montana’s top court is set to hear the state’s appeal of a landmark ruling holding that it was violating the rights of young people to a clean and healthful environment by barring regulators from considering the impacts on climate change when approving fossil fuel projects.

The Republican-led state will urge the Montana Supreme Court to conclude that the lawsuit by 16 young people should never have gone to trial in the first place because they lack legal standing to challenge a restriction on agencies’ ability to consider the impact of greenhouse gas emissions.

The state is asking the court to reverse an August 2023 ruling by District Court Judge Kathy Seeley in Helena in the closely watched case. It was the first lawsuit in the United States by young environmental activists challenging state and federal policies they say are exacerbating climate change to go to trial.

The youth-led lawsuits have taken aim at government policies at the state and federal level that they say encourage or allow the extraction and burning of fossil fuels and violate their rights under U.S. or state constitutions.

While some of those cases have faltered, the youth activists last month scored a major victory when the state of Hawaii agreed as part of a first-in-the-nation settlement to take action to decarbonize its transportation system by 2045.

The 16 Montana plaintiffs sued in 2020, when they were ages 2 to 18, alleging the state’s fossil fuel-based energy system and permitting of projects like coal and natural gas production exacerbated green house gas emissions and climate change.

Through lawyers at the non-profit law firm Our Children’s Trust, the plaintiffs have argued that a state law that barred Montana officials from considering the impacts of climate change when conducting environmental reviews of proposed projects violated their rights under Montana’s state constitution.

Seeley agreed, saying the young people had a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment under a 1972 amendment to Montana’s constitution requiring the state to protect and improve the environment.

She said the state’s failure to consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate change had harmed the young people’s mental and physical health as well as their recreational interests, cultural traditions, economic security and happiness.

“The evidence we put on trial shows how greenhouse gas emissions both within a state, regionally and globally are injuring citizens, particularly our youngest citizens and future generations,” said Phil Gregory, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Chase Scheuer, a spokesperson for Republican Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, said Seeley should have tossed the case from the outset instead of giving the plaintiffs a “show trial” that he called a “taxpayer-funded publicity stunt.”

The state in a brief said Seeley should have concluded the young people had failed to establish they had legal standing to challenge the law because a single Montana statute could not be the cause of their alleged injuries since to curb climate change the world’s energy system would have to be transformed.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers counter that they had suffered concrete harms as a result of Montana’s unfettered permitting of fossil fuel projects, which they say have caused an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and have degraded Montana’s environment.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Sandra Maler)

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