Montana Republicans urge state high court to reverse landmark youth climate ruling

Jul 9, 2024, 9:13 PM | Updated: Jul 10, 2024, 2:42 pm

FILE - Youth plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, arrive at the Lewis and Cl...

FILE - Youth plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, arrive at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse, June 20, 2023, in Helena, Mont., for the final day of the trial. A Montana judge in August 2023 sided with young environmental activists who said state agencies were violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment by permitting fossil fuel development without considering its effect on the climate. The state's effort to overturn the ruling is now before the Montana Supreme Court. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP, File)/Independent Record via AP)

(Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP, File)

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

Last year’s lower court ruling — following an unprecedented trial in a lawsuit brought by young environmentalists — was considered a breakthrough in attempts to use courts to leverage policies addressing climate change.

Yet for it to set a lasting legal precedent, it must be upheld by the state’s high court. That could nudge fossil fuel-friendly Montana to adopt policies more protective to the environment and also influence future climate change cases in other states such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York, which like Montana have state constitutional protections for the environment.

A reversal by the high court would add to a long list of defeats for attorneys representing youths in climate cases.

“The bottom line is whatever the state Supreme Court decides, it’s more likely to be important than the trial court ruling,” said Syracuse University professor David Driesen, an expert on environmental law.

Officials in Hawaii who faced 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 better protect their people from the consequences of climate change, siding with a group of older Swiss women against their government in a ruling with potential implications across the continent.

Those cases and the Montana lawsuit have resulted in a small number of rulings establishing a government duty to protect citizens from climate change. Driesen said the effects of the litigation on energy policies have been largely indirect, but as the rulings accumulate, it could increase political pressure on energy companies to invest in cleaner technologies.

The Montana ruling, which has yielded little practical impact to date, has been criticized by Republicans who control the state’s legislative and executive branches.

“The District Court gave the plaintiffs their show trial last June, but it is now time for the State Supreme Court to do its job and overturn the flawed decision that followed,” said Chase Scheuer, press secretary for state Attorney General Austin Knudsen. Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte also pressed for a reversal.

Attorneys for the state argue that the volume of greenhouse gasses released from Montana fossil fuel projects is insignificant compared with global emissions and reducing them would have no meaningful effect on the climate.

The young plaintiffs in the case testified at trial that their lives have been profoundly affected by climate change: that worsening wildfires foul the air they breathe, while decreased snowpack and drought deplete rivers that sustain farming, fish, wildlife and recreation.

Environmental activists have cited the district court ruling in lawsuits challenging permits for a natural gas power plant, an oil refinery, a pipeline and a coal mine, court records show.

However, those lawsuits haven’t yet been served on state officials as the activists wait for the high court to weigh in, said Derf Johnson of the Montana Environmental Information Center, a plaintiff in the cases.

In March, regulators started looking at climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions in some cases. But environmentalists complain that the reviews are merely cursory and don’t account for the widespread damage being done by climate change.

“The state needs to start evaluating the individual projects. It’s where the rubber hits the road,” Johnson said.

District Court Judge Kathy Seeley said in her August 2023 ruling that it would be up to the Legislature to determine how to bring policies into compliance, dimming the chances for prompt changes in what is a fossil fuel-friendly state.

Numerous individuals and organizations filed briefs in support of the plaintiffs ahead of Wednesday’s oral arguments, including Native American tribes, health experts, outdoor recreation businesses and athletes such as acclaimed mountaineer Conrad Anker.

Republican legislative leaders, oil and gas interests, natural resource developers, the Montana Chamber of Commerce and the state’s largest utility, NorthWestern Energy, are supporting the state. NorthWestern is building a gas-fired power plant along the Yellowstone River near Billings that has figured prominently in the dispute over greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon dioxide, which is released when fossil fuels are burned, traps heat in the atmosphere and is largely responsible for the warming of the climate.

June brought record warm global temperatures for the 13th straight month and also was the 12th straight month that was 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than pre-industrial times, according to European climate service Copernicus.

Montana’s Constitution requires agencies to “maintain and improve” a clean environment. A law signed by Gianforte last year said environmental reviews may not consider climate impacts unless the federal government makes carbon dioxide a regulated pollutant.


Brown reported from Billings.

United States News

President Joe Biden walks to his car after stepping off of Air Force One at Dover Air Force Base in...

Associated Press

Biden has COVID-19 and didn’t wear a mask. The CDC’s guidelines say he doesn’t have to

REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. (AP) — President Joe Biden did not wear a face mask in public a couple of times after the White House announced he had tested positive for COVID-19. The White House said the Democratic incumbent was experiencing “mild” symptoms while the president’s physician said Biden would self-isolate “in accordance with CDC guidance […]

33 minutes ago

Peter Navarro raises his fist while speaking during the Republican National Convention on Wednesday...

Associated Press

Trump’s convention notably downplays Jan. 6 and his lies about election fraud

MILWAUKEE (AP) — As the Republican National Committee moves into its final day Thursday, the loudest applause for a speaker not named Trump so far has been for a previously little-known economist who served as a trade adviser to the former Republican president. Peter Navarro came to the convention stage straight from Florida on Wednesday, […]

36 minutes ago

Thousands gather during the National Eucharistic Congress opening ceremonies, July 17, 2024, at Luc...

Associated Press

For Catholic pilgrims, all roads lead to Indy for an old-style devotion in modern stadium setting

Like the star of an arena tour, a spotlight illuminated the glittering, golden vessel carried by a Catholic bishop. Inside, it held a round communion host, which Catholics believe is the full presence of Jesus in the appearance of bread. The bishop placed it on an altar at the center of Lucas Oil Stadium in […]

36 minutes ago

Associated Press

Housing provider for unaccompanied migrant children engaged in sexual abuse and harassment, DOJ says

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The largest housing provider for unaccompanied migrant children has been accused of “severe, pervasive, and unwelcome sexual abuse of and harassment” of children in its care, the Justice Department said Thursday. A federal complaint filed in Austin, Texas, alleges that Southwest Key employees, including supervisors, have abused children in its care […]

46 minutes ago

Associated Press

Boeing case puts a spotlight on plea agreements involving corporate defendants

After two jetliner crashes killed 346 people, a $2.5 billion settlement that let Boeing avoid criminal prosecution failed to resolve questions about the safety of the aerospace giant’s planes. Federal prosecutors now accuse the company of failing to live up to terms of the 2021 settlement. Boeing has agreed to plead guilty to a felony […]

1 hour ago

FILE - Supporters cheer as President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally, Feb. 20, 2020, in Col...

Associated Press

Colorado judge rejects claims that door-to-door voter fraud search was intimidation

DENVER (AP) — A Colorado judge on Thursday rejected claims from civil and voting rights organizations that a group of Donald Trump supporters intimidated voters when they went door-to-door searching for fraud following the 2020 election. The lawsuit against leaders of the U.S. Election Integrity Plan alleged the group’s activities included photographing voters’ homes and […]

1 hour ago

Sponsored Articles


Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinic visits boost student training & community health

Going to a Midwestern University Clinic can help make you feel good in more ways than one.


Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s how to be worry-free when your A/C goes out in the middle of summer

PHOENIX -- As Arizona approaches another hot summer, Phoenix residents are likely to spend more time indoors.



Here are 5 things Arizona residents need to know about their HVAC system

It's warming back up in the Valley, which means it's time to think about your air conditioning system's preparedness for summer.

Montana Republicans urge state high court to reverse landmark youth climate ruling