Some of the young people who started the lawsuit against the state authorities, upon arrival at the court, last June. Thom Bridge (AP)
In one of the first decisions of its kind, a Montana judge agreed on Monday with a group of young environmentalists in their right to grow up in a clean environment. The judge, Kathy Seeley, a district judge, has found unconstitutional the limits that state authorities have placed on local environmental regulators in granting permits to fossil fuel companies. According to Seeley’s reasoning, the development of the industry does not take into account the impact that polluting emissions have on climate change or on the health of the inhabitants of a region. It is a pioneering decision in the United States, although it is expected to have little impact in an entity controlled by the Republican Party.
The trial began in June. So, the judge heard 16 young people, between the ages of 5 and 22, who filed a lawsuit in March 2020 against state authorities. The Montana Congress passed a series of laws that favors the oil, gas and coal industry, while curbing the development of renewables. For two weeks, the group that promoted the case testified how the smoke from the forest fires, the increase in temperatures and the drought in the West have affected the physical and mental health of the inhabitants of the entity, which has 1.1 million population.
Among the people who testified are indigenous people from native tribes, a family of ranchers who have seen their water supply diminished, young people who have seen their asthma worsen with the fires, and climate activists. One of these is Grace Gisbon-Snyder, 19, originally from the city of Missoula, in eastern Montana. “We have seen in recent years who the Montana Congress has elected. They have chosen the development of fossil fuels, they have preferred corporations over the needs of their citizens,” Gibson-Snyder said last June.
In her ruling, the judge argued that the Montana Environmental Protection Agency (MEPA) has not done enough to regulate the polluting industry. This, the togada continues, because the Legislative branch has placed limits on its power, which has diminished its ability to limit the powerful companies in the industry. “These limits to MEPA are subject to strict scrutiny because they imply the claimants’ right to a clean and healthy environment,” Seeley writes. “The limitation of MEPA unconstitutionally contributes to the degradation and reduction of the state environment and its natural resources, which contributes to deepening the injuries of the complainants”, continues the judge.
Seeley’s decision has not pleased the local authorities. A spokeswoman for the Montana Attorney General, Austin Knudsen, has considered it “absurd” and described as a media show, before revealing that the Attorney General’s Office will appeal the decision. Knudsen’s office tried to derail the trial on several occasions, complaining about procedural lapses. The state Supreme Court dismissed the prosecutor’s complaints and allowed the trial to proceed after more than three years in the making. This Monday they have charged against the judge and her supposed left-wing ideology.
The case was brought to court by the environmental organization Our Children’s Trust, which has filed similar lawsuits in the states since 2011 without success. Montana, however, contemplates in its 1972 Constitution that the preservation of a “clean and healthy” environment is one of the obligations of state authorities. Only a handful of states, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York, have similar environmental protections.
Montana is not one of the entities that produces the most greenhouse gases, but the trial made it clear that the increase in pollutants and global warming affect not only its inhabitants, but also important economic sources and natural resources. Among these is the Glacier Nature Park, which contains glaciers that provide a vital supply of fresh water to various communities.
Julia Olson, the executive director of Our Children’s Trust and one of the lead lawyers in the case, hailed Monday’s ruling as a “huge triumph.” “In the midst of the rage of fires in the West, fueled by the pollution of fossil fuels, the Montana ruling is a milestone that marks a turning point in the efforts of a generation to save the planet from the devastating effects of the climate chaos that humans have caused,” Olson said, quoted by the Associated Press.
Analysts do not share Our Children’s Trust’s jubilation, saying the ruling is unlikely to prompt swift action to protect the environment. It must be the Legislative Branch that determines how it converts the judicial decision into public policy. For now, this is unlikely to happen as long as Congress is in the hands of Republicans, who have favored the fossil polluting industry.
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