Montana district court judge Kathy Seeley has ruled in favor of the youth climate activist group Our Children’s Trust in the case Held V. Montana. This ruling marks a pivotal shift as it overturns a state law that previously prohibited state officials from considering climate change in fossil fuel projects. This landmark case shines a new beacon of hope for favorable rulings in climate legislation across the country.
(Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)
Montana’s state constitution includes the right to a “Clean and healthful environment.” The 16 youths who began this case firmly believed that the banning of consideration of climate impacts was a violation of this right.
According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), The Powder River Basin (located in Wyoming and Montana) holds the largest coal deposit in the United States. Alongside this, the state substantially contributes to the production of greenhouse gases in America. Within its borders, it contains thousands of gas wells and oil wells– as well as four oil refineries and six coal mines.
This case is significant because it is the first time that an American court has ruled that a healthy environment is a state constitutional right.
Previous cases led by Our Children’s Trust have mostly been unsuccessful, but this historic win could set the precedent that climate impacts are important and a worthy cause to consider in each state’s legislation. It could also help the organization win its ongoing climate cases in Hawaii, Utah, and Virginia.
Reflecting on the win, Julia Olson, Chief legal counsel and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, said, “Today, for the first time in U.S. history, a court ruled on the merits of a case that the government violated the constitutional rights of children through laws and actions that promote fossil fuels, ignore climate change, and disproportionately imperil young people.”
However, there are limitations to this ruling.
Northwestern Pritzker School of Law professor David Dana explains, “It doesn’t try to set up the court to set climate policy for Montana...” Essentially, Seeley’s ruling has no bearing over other branches of government or other courts. The ruling only bars legislators and officials in Montana from turning a blind eye to the impacts of current and future oil, gas, and coal projects.
They are only required to consider the impacts; they are not required to do anything to remedy them.
With the state’s political majority being Republican and the fact that the GOP tends to be in favor of fossil fuel usage, it does not seem likely it will slow the rate of projects by any significant amount.
Furthermore, the win does not limit fossil fuel project permits. As long as the project fully complies with regulations, they will not be denied permission. Department of Environmental Quality Director Chris Dorrington stated, “We do not have the authority to not permit something that fully complies with the law…”
The win also does not come without opposition.
A spokeswoman for the defense, Emily Flower, has confirmed that Montana’s Attorney General, Austin Knudsen, intends to appeal the ruling.
Despite the numerous limitations and possible appeal, this case is still a significant step forward in climate regulations. Its potential to set a broad precedent for favorable climate rulings is not something that can be disregarded. It can impact rulings all across America and even abroad.
How can you help?
Informing yourself is the most essential step in becoming an activist and fighting for what you believe is right. Along with these articles, feel free to check out the articles in the citation section of this article.
If you would like to join Our Children’s Trust as a plaintiff for cases in your state, consider checking out this link, New Client Interest Form — Our Children's Trust
Extra steps you can take:
Joining Kids Fight Climate Change: If you want to make climate change news and information more accessible, you should consider joining us! Check out this link: Join the Team | Kids Fight Climate Change: Youth Climate Education. There are more opportunities than just writing, including designing, editing, speaking, and publishing.
Volunteering at advocacy groups: VolunteerMatch is a great resource to find volunteer opportunities, virtual and in-person. Check out this link: VolunteerMatch
If neither of those options applies to you, there are still ways to raise awareness! Simply by sharing articles such as this one, you are doing your part to spread important climate information. That is activism.
Brown, Matthew. “Young Environmentalists Won a Landmark Climate Change Ruling in Montana. Will It Change Anything? | AP News.” AP News, August 15, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/climate-change-youth-lawsuit-montana-86b181dc09ede1c6c21bcc0a4e5a2a38.
Brown, Matthew, and Amy Beth Hanson. “Montana Officials Downplay First-of-Its-Kind Climate Trial | AP News.” AP News, June 19, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/youth-climate-trial-montana-8c03fe47bb6c29334cf22d047d76fd1a.
Gelles, David, and Mike Baker. “Judge Rules in Favor of Montana Youths in a Landmark Climate Case.” The New York Times, August 16, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/14/us/montana-youth-climate-ruling.html.
Our Children’s Trust. “Montana — Our Children’s Trust,” n.d. https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/montana.
Selig, Kate. “Youths Sued Montana over Climate Change and Won. Here’s Why It Matters.” Washington Post, August 17, 2023. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/08/17/montana-climate-lawsuit-impact/.
“What Is the Biggest Coal Deposit in the United States? | U.S. Geological Survey,” May 12, 2015. https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/what-biggest-coal-deposit-united-states.