Montana officials downplay significance of first-of-its-kind climate test

HELEN, Mont. (AP) — Montana officials have sought to downplay a lawsuit, the first of its kind, over a state’s obligations to protect residents from climate change, saying Monday that a victory for young plaintiffs would not alter approvals. fossil fuel projects.

Lawyers for Montana’s Republican attorney general began presenting their defense after a week of often emotional testimony in state court from more than a dozen youths who sued the state in 2020.

The 16 plaintiffs, aged 5 to 22, say they are hurt by wildfire smoke, excessive heat and other effects of climate change. They are asking a judge to declare unconstitutional a state law that prevents agencies from considering the effect of greenhouse gases when issuing 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 top environmental regulator said Monday permitting practices wouldn’t change if young environmentalists win their case. .

“We don’t have the authority not to allow something that is fully within the law,” said Chris Dorrington, director of the Department of Environmental Quality. “We did not create the law. We enforce the law. »

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

Only regulatory acts can be used as the basis for permit denials, and these do not permit permit denials in Montana due to climate impacts, said Sonja Nowakowski, Air Division Administrator, DEQ energy and mining.

The young plaintiffs testified for five days last week that climate change was ruining their lives, with smoke from worsening wildfires choking the air they breathed. The drought is drying up the rivers that support agriculture, fishing, wildlife and recreation.

Olivia Vesovich, 20, a University of Montana student who grew up in Missoula, said she suffered from respiratory problems that made wildfire smoke almost unbearable.

As his respiratory reactions worsened during the frequent smoke events that enveloped Missoula, Vesovich said his mother in recent years began taking them on trips to fires in search of cleaner air – in Washington State, Idaho and elsewhere in Montana.

“I feel like it’s suffocating me, like I’ve been outside for a few minutes,” Vesovich said. “Climate change is taking such a toll on our world right now and I know it’s only going to get worse.”

In previous rulings, the state’s District Judge, Judge Kathy Seeley, significantly narrowed the scope of the case. Even if the plaintiffs prevail, Seeley said she would not order officials to formulate a new approach to tackle climate change.

Instead, the judge could issue what’s called a “declaratory judgment,” declaring that the officials violated the state constitution. This would set a new legal precedent of courts weighing in on matters usually left to the legislative and executive branches of government.

Carbon dioxide, which is released when fossil fuels are burned, traps heat in the atmosphere and is largely responsible for global warming. Carbon dioxide levels in the air this spring have reached the highest levels in more than 4 million years, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration said earlier this month. Greenhouse gas emissions also hit a record high last year, according to the International Energy Agency.


Brown reported from Billings, Mont.

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