HELENA, June 20 (AP) Montana officials are trying to downplay the first trial of its kind against the state’s obligations to protect residents from the impacts of climate change, saying Monday that a victory for the young plaintiffs won’t change the fight against fossil fuels. Approve the project.
Attorneys for Montana’s Republican attorney general launched their defense after a week of emotional testimony in state court by young people suing the state in 2020.
The 16 plaintiffs, ranging in age from 5 to 22, said they were harmed by wildfire smoke, overheating and other effects of climate change. They asked the judge to declare unconstitutional a state law that prevents agencies from considering the impact of greenhouse gases when issuing permits for fossil fuel development.
Final arguments are expected on Tuesday — days earlier than originally scheduled — after the state failed to call an expert witness who was expected to testify and severely limited the testimony of a second expert. Lawyers for the plaintiffs had questioned the credibility of two witnesses who said Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions were insignificant compared with the global total.
Greenhouse gases emitted by coal, oil and gas are heating the planet, scientists say, with each additional tonne of emissions counting.
According to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Montana has never refused permission for a fossil fuel project. But the state’s main environmental watchdog said Monday that licensing practices would not change if the young environmentalists prevailed.
“We don’t have the power to ban something that’s perfectly legal,” said Chris Dorrington, director of environmental quality. “We’re not the ones who make the laws. We’re the ones who enforce the laws,”
State officials also distinguished between the law in question — a provision of Montana’s environmental protection law they called “procedural” — and regulatory actions, such as Montana’s Clean Air Act.
Sonja Nowakowski, director of DEQ’s air, energy and mining division, said only regulatory actions can be used as a basis for denying permits, and those actions do not allow denials of permits based on climate impact in Montana.
Over five days last week, the young plaintiffs testified that climate change is damaging their lives and that smoke from worsening wildfires is choking the air they breathe. The drought is drying up rivers that sustain agriculture, fish, wildlife and recreational activities.
Olivia Vesovich, 20, a University of Montana student who grew up in Missoula, said she suffered from breathing problems that made the wildfire smoke almost unbearable.
Her respiratory response got worse during the smog that blanketed Missoula, Vesovich said, and her mother began taking them to other parts of Washington state, Idaho and Montana during the fires in recent years to find them. cleaner air.
“It felt like it was suffocating me, like I was outside for a few minutes,” Vesovich said. “Climate change is doing so much damage to our world, and I know it’s only going to get worse.”
In an earlier ruling, State District Judge Kathy Seeley narrowed the scope of the case substantially. Even if the plaintiffs prevail, Seeley said she would not order officials to develop new ways to combat climate change.
Instead, judges can issue so-called “declaratory judgments” saying officials violated the state constitution. It would set a new legal precedent, with courts hearing cases normally left to the legislative and executive branches of government.
The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys for Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon environmental group that has filed similar lawsuits in every state since 2011. No one had been tried before. A climate case the group brought in Montana a decade ago was thrown out by the state Supreme Court.
Carbon dioxide released when burning fossil fuels traps heat in the atmosphere and is a major contributor to climate warming. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said earlier this month that the amount of carbon dioxide in the air this spring reached its highest level in 4 million years. Greenhouse gas emissions also hit a record high last year, according to the International Energy Agency. (Associated Press)
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