Republicans in Montana call on state Supreme Court to overturn landmark ruling on climate protection for youth


HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Republican politicians in Montana will ask the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to overturn a landmark climate ruling that requires regulators to consider global warming emissions when approving oil, gas and coal projects.

A lower court’s ruling last year – after an unprecedented trial in a lawsuit brought by young environmentalists – was seen as a breakthrough in attempts to use courts as leverage for policy action to combat climate change.

But for this ruling to set a lasting precedent, it must be upheld by the state Supreme Court. That could push fossil-fuel-friendly Montana to adopt more environmentally friendly policies. It could also influence future climate change cases in other states, such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York, which, like Montana, have constitutional environmental protections.

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A Supreme Court overturn of the ruling would be another in a long list of defeats for lawyers representing young people in climate litigation.

“The bottom line is that the state Supreme Court’s decision is probably more important than the trial court’s decision,” says David Driesen, a professor at Syracuse University and an expert in environmental law.

Officials in Hawaii, facing a similar lawsuit from young environmentalists, recently agreed to a settlement that includes an ambitious requirement to decarbonize the state’s transportation system over the next 21 years. And in April, Europe’s highest human rights court ruled that countries must do more to protect their populations from the effects of climate change, siding with a group of elderly Swiss women against their government. The ruling has potential ramifications across the continent.

Those cases and the Montana lawsuit have resulted in a small number of rulings requiring governments to protect their citizens from climate change. Driesen said the litigation’s impact on energy policy is mostly indirect, but as the rulings pile up, political pressure on energy companies to invest in cleaner technologies could increase.

The Montana ruling, which has so far had little practical impact, has been criticized by Republicans who control the state’s legislature and executive.

“The district court granted the plaintiffs their show trial last June, but now it is time for the state Supreme Court to do its job and overturn the flawed decision that followed,” said Chase Scheuer, press secretary for the state’s Attorney General, Austin Knudsen. Republican Governor Greg Gianforte also pushed for the ruling to be overturned.

The state’s lawyers argue that the amount of greenhouse gases released by Montana’s fossil fuel projects is insignificant compared to global emissions, and reducing that amount would not have a significant impact on the climate.

The young plaintiffs in this case testified in court that their lives have been profoundly affected by climate change: increasingly severe wildfires pollute the air they breathe, and snow loss and droughts dry up rivers that support agriculture, fishing, wildlife and recreation.

According to court records, environmental activists have relied on the district court ruling in lawsuits challenging building permits for a natural gas power plant, an oil refinery, a pipeline and a coal mine.

However, those lawsuits have not yet been served on state authorities as activists await the Supreme Court’s decision, said Derf Johnson of the Montana Environmental Information Center, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits.

In March, regulators began investigating climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions in some cases, but environmentalists complain that the investigations are superficial and do not take into account the widespread damage caused by climate change.

“The state must begin to evaluate individual projects. That is the crucial point,” Johnson said.

District Judge Kathy Seeley said in her August 2023 ruling that it was up to the Legislature to decide how to reconcile the policies, diminishing the chances of rapid change in a state that is open to fossil fuels.

Numerous individuals and organizations filed briefs in support of the plaintiffs ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, including Native American tribes, health experts, outdoor recreation companies and athletes such as well-known mountaineer Conrad Anker.

The state is supported by leading Republicans in the legislature, oil and gas companies, natural resource developers, the Montana Chamber of Commerce and the state’s largest energy provider, NorthWestern Energy. NorthWestern is building a gas-fired power plant on the Yellowstone River near Billings, which plays a key role in the dispute over greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels are burned stores heat in the atmosphere and is largely responsible for global warming.

According to the European climate service Copernicus, June was the 13th consecutive month of record global temperatures and the 12th consecutive month that was 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than pre-industrial times.

Montana’s constitution requires agencies to “maintain and improve” a clean environment, but a law Gianforte signed last year said environmental reviews cannot consider climate impacts unless the federal government declares carbon dioxide a regulated pollutant.

Brown reported from Billings.

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