Attorneys for young people suing Montana over damages caused by climate change said officials repealed the state’s energy policy in a last-minute bid to avoid a trial sought by the plaintiffs to highlight the dangers of fossil fuels.
The two sides are due in court Friday for arguments before state District Judge Kathy Seeley. A two-week trial is scheduled to begin June 12.
The case was brought in 2020 by attorneys for the environmental group Our Children’s Trust, which since 2010 has filed climate lawsuits in every state on behalf of youth plaintiffs. Many of the cases — including a previous one in Montana — have been dismissed. None have yet reached trial.
The still-pending Montana lawsuit sought in part to repeal a state policy promoting coal, gas and oil development. Scientists say burning those fuels is largely driving climate change by releasing planet-warming carbon dioxide.
But after the disputed energy policy was repealed in March by the state Legislature, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a Republican, last month asked the judge to dismiss any part of the case touching on the cancelled policy.
The cancellation did not end the state’s support of fossil fuels.
An attorney for the plaintiffs, Philip Gregory, told The Associated Press the policy was repealed “not because the state has committed to changing its fossil fuel policy and actions, but because the state seeks to avoid standing trial.”
He explained in an email that the state’s continued support for fossil fuels violates environmental protections in the Montana Constitution, which says the state “shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and all future generations.”
The lawsuit documents how the consequences of climate change already are being felt by the young plaintiffs, with smoke from worsening wildfires choking the air they breathe and drought drying rivers that sustain agriculture, fish and wildlife.
Attorneys under Knudsen wrote that the plaintiffs were resorting to “emotional appeals” about the dangers of climate change, “regardless of whether their claims are moot or meritless.”
Judge Seeley already has narrowed the scope of the case, ruling in 2021 that it was outside her power to issue a requested order that would have forced the state to craft a greenhouse gas reduction plan. The judge also said she could not order the state to complete an inventory of emissions caused by fossil fuels.
In both instances, Seeley said such work should be left to experts in the executive and legislative branches of government.
But Seeley said the court could declare that the state was in violation of the Constitution, without ordering that anything be done in response.
The sponsor of the measure that repealed the energy policy, Republican Rep. Steve Gunderson, did not return a call seeking comment. He said when it was under consideration before the Legislature that the policy was meaningless and outdated.