By Karen Savage
Sixteen young Montanans have accused the state and its governor of violating their rights under the state constitution to a clean and healthy environment, by supporting a fossil fuel-driven energy system that contributes to climate change.
In a lawsuit filed on March 13 in the First Judicial District Court of Lewis and Clark County, lawyers for the young plaintiffs, who range from 2 to 18 years old, have asked the court to declare that Montana’s energy policies violate the state’s constitution. They also want the court to order the state to prepare a detailed assessment of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, and to develop a science-based plan to reduce those emissions.
“Allowing emissions to continue unabated is utterly irrational,” Shiloh Hernandez, a staff attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center and co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said in a press release. “Montana is already suffering the lashes of climate change: higher temperatures, less snowpack, lower summer stream flows, worsening droughts, heatwaves, larger and longer wildfires and choking smoke waves, widespread forest die-offs, and decreased agriculture and tourism,” Hernandez added.
The lead plaintiff in the case, Held et al. v. State of Montana et al., is 18-year-old Rikki Held, whose family has lived in the state for five generations.
“Our government knows the devastating effects of fossil fuels and must take action to protect the land that my family and fellow Montanans rely upon and hope to conserve for future generations,” Held said in a press release.
Other co-counsel for the youth plaintiffs include Nate Bellinger, a senior staff attorney with the nonprofit environmental law group Our Children’s Trust, and Roger Sullivan, a senior partner at McGarvey Law.
The state of Montana, along with Gov.Steve Bullock and several state regulatory departments, are “unconstitutionally depleting and degrading Montana’s environment and natural resources and causing and contributing to the dangerous destabilization of the climate system, thereby depriving the youth plaintiffs of their constitutionally guaranteed rights under the Montana constitution,” according to the lawsuit.
"Although defendants know that youth plaintiffs are living under dangerous climatic conditions that create an unreasonable risk of harm, they continue to act affirmatively to exacerbate the climate crisis."
As evidence, the attorneys have pointed to the Montana Environmental Policy Act, contending that it includes a provision that bars the state from considering climate change when reviewing the environmental impacts of proposed fossil fuel projects.
The act promotes the use of fossil fuels, according to the lawsuit, which also alleges that the state has failed to disclose the health and climate consequences associated with its decisions to allow several coal companies, the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and oil refineries operated by ExxonMobil, Phillips 66, and two other companies, to operate within the state.
The timeline for the case is unclear, as the court has begun operating remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The office of Gov. Bullock did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Some of the claims and requests made in the Montana lawsuit are similar to the plaintiffs' claims in the landmark federal climate case Juliana v. United States, which was dismissed in February by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Lawyers for the Juliana youth have asked the full court to review that ruling.