Lambert here: It continues DeSmog’s coverage of Held vs. Montana, where young people in Montana blame the state’s strong preference for fossil fuel development for violating their right, guaranteed by the Montana constitution, to a clean and healthy environment. I think the young people are going to lose, but good for them: they are in there knocking!
By Dana Drugmand, environmental journalist specializing in reporting on climate change and climate responsibility. She writes regularly for DeSmog on topics including the fossil fuel industry’s opposition to climate action, climate change lawsuits, greenwashing and fake climate solutions, and clean transportation. Originally posted on DeSmog.
Montana “has recognized climate change as a growing concern for decadesAnne Hedges, director of policy and legislative affairs at the Montana Center for Environmental Information, testified Thursday in a Montana court. Despite this, the state has never denied a permit for a fossil fuel-related project, she said.
“Montana isn’t walking, it’s running, in the wrong direction to address the climate crisis,” Hedges concluded.
His testimony was part of a landmark youth-led constitutional climate trial currently underway in the Helena State Capital. The case, brought by 16 young Montanans against their state government, argues that Montana is exacerbating dangerous climate change through the persistent promotion and licensing of fossil fuels, while simultaneously ignoring the climate impacts of these activities. This conduct violates Montana’s constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment, the plaintiffs say.
Montana’s constitution enshrines the right to a clean and healthy environment. Credit: Dana Drugmand.
This right has existed for more than 50 years. The state adopted a new constitution in 1972 which prioritizes the protection of the environment for present and future generations and guarantees a clean and healthy environment as inalienable right. This too explicitly fulfills the duty of the legislator to uphold this right and to support the “protection of the environmental life support system from degradation”.
But as the climate crisis has deepened and climate scientists warn that governments must earnestly move away from fossil fuelsMontana’s legislature has been “utterly hostile” to the clean energy transition, Hedges said.
In the past few months alone, the state’s Republican supermajority has swiftly passed a number of bills that allow more fossil fuel development, such as those that prohibit local governments from taking actions that restrict the use or the production of fossil fuels. The legislature also passed a bill explicitly prohibiting state agencies from even considering climate change and greenhouse gas emissions in environmental assessments of development projects.
Republican Governor Greg Gianforte signed this bill, HB 971, which entered into force in May. It amends the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) to state that an environmental review “may not include an assessment of greenhouse gas emissions and corresponding climate impacts within the state or beyond the borders of the state”. Under the previous version of the law as amended in 2011, the state was not allowed to consider impacts beyond state borders in environmental assessments. This implicitly meant that climate change was not allowed to be considered in permitting decisions.
Hedges explained how the MEPA Bill of 2011 marked a turning point in the state’s treatment of climate impacts in the permitting process. Prior to 2011, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) assessed and disclosed the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from fossil fuel projects, although the agency did not deny any permits for these projects. But the disclosure offered the public transparent information and an opportunity to comment on climate change concerns. Hedges said some projects were eventually shelved in part due to public opposition.
This sparked a backlash from the fossil fuel industry, she added, and in the 2011 legislature, “the state doubled down on its fossil fuel efforts.” He passed the MEPA ‘climate change exception’ bill, which she said the industry has ‘aligned to support’.
Since then, the state has continued to license fossil fuel projects, but has refused to assess their climate change impacts. “I haven’t seen DEQ since 2011 do an analysis under MEPA that takes climate change into account,” Hedges said.
The state has issued permits for a slew of fossil fuel projects over the past 12 years, particularly for the expansion of coal mines. Coal is the most carbon-intensive fuel, and while many countries have pledged in recent years to move away from it due to its climate impact, Montana has done the opposite. In 2015, 2019 and 2020, the DEQ authorized expansion projects at the Rosebud Coal Mine, which serves the Colstrip coal-fired power station. In 2016, the agency approved the expansion of the Bull Mountain mine for an additional 176 million tonnes of coal. DEQ also issued a license renewal for the Bull Mountain mine last month. And in 2020, DEQ enabled an expansion of the Spring Creek mine.
Montana has the largest recoverable coal reserves in the United States, accounting for about one-third of the total untapped coal in the country. THE the state still generates a considerable share of its electricity from coal – it accounted for 42% of the state’s output in 2022.
Montana has continued to allow coal projects despite coal’s substantial contribution to CO2 emissions. Credit: Dana Drugmand.
More recently, Montana regulators approved a fossil gas-fired power plant called Yellowstone County Generating Station. The Montana Environmental Information Center disputed that air permit approval and a judge ruled in April to invalidate the permit based on inadequate consideration of impacts, including climate pollution, under MEPA. The move prompted the Republican-controlled legislature to pass the new MEPA law, HB 971, explicitly banning climate considerations. He also spent a Invoice prevent legal challenges based on climate impacts under MEPA from stopping or delaying any permit or authorization.
This clear pattern of defending and enabling fossil fuel activities despite increasingly dire warnings from climate scientists is why the young plaintiffs are taking their state government to court. Their lawsuit specifically challenges the state’s policy of prohibiting climate change considerations under MEPA, first established in 2011 and later clarified with the passage of HB 971 last month.
State Sen. Mary Ann Dunwell, Democrat of District 42, which covers East Helena, told DeSmog that it’s clear that a law banning consideration of climate change is a breach of warranty. Constitution of Montana of a clean and healthy environment.
“We receive legal review marks if our bills are constitutionally out of order. So they knew, the Republican majority knew, going into it, that it was unconstitutional,” she said.
“Under the Montana constitution, legislators have a job to do, a responsibility. Article 9 Section 1 states that we must work for a clean and healthy environment,” she added. “Some of my colleagues are breaking this oath that we take. At the start of the session, we swore to abide by the Montana constitution, and they broke that vow. It’s not correct.
The young plaintiffs, who testified about their own lived experiences of climate impacts, such as heavy smoke pollution from worsening wildfires, said they believed their government was betraying its constitutional obligation.
“I think the state is showing a flagrant disregard for the right of Montana residents to a clean and healthy environment,” 20-year-old Taleah Hernández told the court.
“It’s not just written in our constitution…it’s also about being a decent person,” said plaintiff Sariel Sandoval.
Kian Tanner, an 18-year-old plaintiff, described the physical sensation he feels knowing the state is ignoring climate change in environmental reviews of fossil fuel projects.
“It’s a feeling, a pain, that starts in my back through my shoulder blades and creeps up my lower back. It hurts my heart and it makes me sick, it makes me feel horrified.