CLIMATEWIRE | HELENA, Mont. — Young people suing Montana for embracing fossil fuels will wrap up their case Friday, closing out a week of bashing officials for ignoring climate effects they say are warming the state's famed fishing rivers, melting its iconic glaciers and harming its youngest residents.

The state — which has argued during cross-examination over the last four days that Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions are declining and are too small to make much of a dent in global warming — will present its case next week.

The lawsuit, Held v. Montana, contends that the energy-rich state’s refusal to consider greenhouse gas emissions violates a provision of the state constitution that guarantees the right to a “clean and healthful environment.”

Anne Hedges, policy and legislative affairs director at the Montana Environmental Information Center, testified Thursday that the state did look at climate change when reviewing fossil fuel projects — until a decade ago when three large power plants were scuttled by public opposition.

Facing backlash from industry, she said, the state “doubled down on fossil fuels.” Lawmakers in 2011 passed a revision to the Montana Environmental Policy Act that bars state agencies from considering climate implications when reviewing proposed projects, and then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) signed it into law.

“It is clear that the executive branch and the legislative branch are not going to allow consideration of climate change,” Hedges said before Judge Kathy Seeley of the 1st District Court in Montana, who is hearing the case. “The only thing that will change that is an order from the court requiring it to do so based on the Montana constitution.”

The Montana climate case is the first of its kind to make it to trial in the United States and could serve as a bellwether for other legal challenges that seek to hold governments and industries accountable for their role in warming the planet.

This week, attorneys with Our Children’s Trust, the Oregon-based law firm that represents the youth, have interspersed testimony from the 16 young challengers with input from a panel of experts — including a climate scientist, a freshwater ecologist and a pediatrician — who told the court that young children are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of climate change.

Kian Tanner, who was 14 when the lawsuit was filed in 2020, took the stand Thursday, testifying that his state’s increasingly hot summers and more frequent wildfires are interfering with where he feels “most at home” — the soccer pitch.

“I have had multiple — and by multiple, I mean tons of — practices and games cut short,” said Tanner, who hopes to make the college team at Saint Mary's College of California. “It’s just depressing. My feet are just boiling, burning every step you take. And then there’s the sun itself. It burns you out so much quicker [that] you can’t compete to the best of your ability.”

Claire Vlases, 20, told the court about a recent trip to Glacier National Park with visiting friends who were unable to see the mountains — or the famed ice masses — because of thick wildfire smoke.

“I kept telling them over and over, 'If you could only see what it actually looks like,'” she said.

She said summers in Montana “sound like a dystopian horror film, but it’s not a movie. It’s real life. That’s what us kids have to deal with.”

She noted that she was in the courtroom Wednesday when Shane Doyle, the father of two of the challengers in the case, testified that smokey summers were rare in his childhood.

“I about fell out of my chair when he said that because I don’t remember a summer that didn’t involve smoke,” she said. “When I think about summer in Montana, I think about smoke.”

Hedges, who has tracked fossil fuel projects in Montana for 30 years, said the state has never turned down a permit for a fossil-fuel-burning power plant.

She noted that the state in the early 2000s — amid increasing worries about climate change — did look at the greenhouse gas effects of power plants. One proposed coal-fired plant north of Billings was projected to emit 8 million tons of carbon dioxide, she said — a 37 percent increase over the statewide total.

That plant and two others were given state approval, but the projects were abandoned due to “strong public opposition based on knowledge” that opponents gained during the state’s environmental review, Hedges said.

Shortly after, lawmakers revised the Montana Environmental Policy Act to bar analysis of climate effects. They further revised the provision this spring with legislation that seeks to clarify that state agencies should not consider greenhouse gas emissions or their effect on climate change when conducting environmental reviews.

Hedges opposed the move in testimony before lawmakers this spring and told the court Thursday that she believes it “does not fulfill the state’s constitutional obligations,” including the right to a healthy environment.

'Montana's emissions matter'

Peter Erickson, a researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute, said Montana is the “linchpin of the fossil fuel economy” in the West, noting that pipelines transmit oil from western Canada to get to refineries and that coal and crude oil are transported by rail.

He compared the state’s appetite for fossil fuels to that of several countries. The energy Montana consumed in 2019 emitted about 32 million tons of carbon dioxide — about as much as Ireland, which has a population six times larger, he said.

The contribution “is significant," he said. "It’s disproportionately large given Montana’s population.” He noted that the state's emissions did decline — but that the decline coincided with the pandemic and a plant closure.

Judith Curry, a prominent researcher and frequent Republican witness at congressional hearings, who is expected to testify for the state next week has called the 32 million tons of carbon dioxide "minuscule" and "not meaningful." But Erickson said more than 100 countries release similar levels of greenhouse gases — and that most have agreed to cut their emissions to meet climate targets.

Erickson noted that the state is still sitting on huge underground reserves of oil and coal. “You can say Montana has only just scratched the surface,” he said.

Montana has the largest estimated recoverable coal reserves in the nation, accounting for about 30 percent of the U.S. total.

“These represent future sources of emissions, emissions that can scarcely afford to be burned if we’re going to stay within climate limits,” Erickson said.

He rejected Curry's assertion that cutting emissions in the state would not make a difference in global warming.

"Every ton of CO2 emitted in the world is equivalent to any another," Erickson said. "Montana's emissions matter."

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.