Montana officials downplay first-of-its-kind climate trial

Climate trial downplayed

Montana officials sought to downplay a first-of-its-kind trial over a state's obligations to protect residents from climate change, saying on Monday that a victory by the young plaintiffs would not change approvals for fossil fuel projects.

Attorneys for Montana's Republican attorney general began laying out their defense following a week of often emotional testimony in state court from more than a dozen young people who sued the state in 2020.

The 16 plaintiffs, ranging in age from 5 to 22 years old, say they're being harmed by wildfire smoke, excessive heat and other effects of climate change. They’re asking a judge to declare unconstitutional a state law that prevents agencies from considering the effect of greenhouse gases when they issue permits for fossil fuel development.

Experts say greenhouse gas emissions from coal, oil and natural gas are making the Earth hotter.

Plaintiffs' attorneys say Montana has never denied a permit for a fossil fuel project, but the state's lead environmental regulator testified Monday that permitting practices would not change if the young environmentalists win their case.

“We do not have the authority to not permit something that fully complies with the law,” said Department of Environmental Quality Director Chris Dorrington. “We are not the ones that created the law. We are the ones that implement the law.”

State officials also drew a distinction between the law being challenged — a provision of the Montana Environmental Protection Act that they characterized as “procedural” — and regulatory acts such as the Clean Air Act of Montana.

Only regulatory acts can used as the basis for permit rejections, and those don't allow permits to be denied in Montana based on climate impacts, said DEQ Air, Energy and Mining Division Administrator Sonja Nowakowski.

The young plaintiffs testified over five days last week that climate change is marring their lives, with smoke from worsening wildfires choking the air they breathe. Drought is drying up rivers that sustain agriculture, fish, wildlife and recreation.

Olivia Vesovich, 20, a student at the University of Montana who grew up in Missoula, said she suffers from breathing problems that make wildfire smoke nearly unbearable.

As her respiratory reactions grew worse during the frequent smoke events that have shrouded Missoula, Vesovich said her mother in recent years started taking them on trips during fires in search of cleaner air — to Washington state, Idaho and elsewhere in Montana.

“It feels like it's suffocating me, like if I'm outside for minutes,” Vesovich said. “Climate change is wreaking so much havoc on our world right now and I know that will only be getting worse.”

In prior rulings, State District Judge Judge Kathy Seeley significantly narrowed the scope of the case. Even if the plaintiffs prevail, Seeley has said she would not order officials to formulate a new approach to address climate change.

Instead, the judge could issue what’s called a “declaratory judgment,” saying officials violated the state Constitution. That would set a new legal precedent of courts weighing in on cases typically left to the government’s legislative and executive branches.

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. Carbon dioxide levels in the air this spring reached the highest levels they’ve been in over 4 million years, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration said earlier this month. Greenhouse gas emissions also reached a record last year, according to the International Energy Agency.

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