Image for Montana Youth-Led Climate Action Suit Prevails
A youth-led lawsuit challenging Montana laws disregarding climate effects in permitting mining and energy projects prevailed in state court, which could momentum to related lawsuits including one pending in Oregon.

Judge Says State Constitution Requires Limiting Fossil Fuel Emissions

A Montana state judge sided with youthful plaintiffs who claim state approval of fossil fuel development violates their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. The verdict may provide a psychological boost for a similar pending lawsuit in Oregon.

Sixteen plaintiffs ranging in age from 5 to 22 sued to overturn a Montana law that says regulatory agencies could not consider greenhouse gas emissions in reviewing applications for mining or energy projects. The suit claimed the laws are incompatible with a Montana constitutional provision ensuring a right to a clean and healthful environment.

In a 103-page order, Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Kathy Seeley agreed. “Plaintiffs have proven that as children and youth, they are disproportionately harmed by fossil fuel pollution and climate impacts,” the order says. “Plaintiffs have a fundamental right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as part of the environmental life support system.”

Her decision strikes down two laws approved by the Montana Legislature this year. According to her order, “The Defendants have the authority under the statues by which they operate to protect Montana’s environment and natural resources, protect the health and safety of Montana’s youth, and alleviate and avoid climate impacts by limiting fossil fuel activities that occur in Montana when the MEPA analysis shows those activities will result in degradation or other harms that violate the Montana Constitution.”

The order also says, “The state constitution commands the Legislature to ‘provide for the administration and enforcement’ to meet the state’s obligation to maintain and improve the environment and provide remedies to prevent its unreasonable depletion and degradation. Montana’s climate, environment and natural resources are unconstitutionally degraded and depleted due to the current atmospheric concentration of GHGs and climate change.”

“We’re very pleased with the ruling,” said Roger Sullivan who represents the Montana plaintiffs “It is stunning in its scope, and I think the message is very clear. The task will now be for the executive branch of our state government and the Legislature to abide by this order.”

The ruling is a huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy and for our climate.”

Parallel Oregon Case
 The pending Oregon lawsuit is in federal court where it has been stalled since 2020 after the U.S., Court of Appeals in the Ninth Circuit dismissed the case. However, after attorneys for the 21 youthful Oregon plaintiffs amended the lawsuit, a federal judge ruled it could proceed to trial. No trial date has been set. The Oregon plaintiffs contend the federal government has promoted fossil fuels and played a role in propelling climate change. They call for the federal government to take bolder actions that drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust, which brought the suit on behalf of Oregon plaintiffs, called the ruling a “huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy, and for our climate.”

“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,” Olson said. “As fires rage in the West, fueled by fossil fuel pollution, the ruling in Montana is a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos.”

Olson also said the ruling provides an evidentiary record and legal precedent that will influence future climate-related lawsuits.

The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law is tracking 2,424 climate change cases globally, with 1,591 filed in U.S. jurisdictions, including two upcoming Our Children’s Trust trials. In addition to the Oregon case, the law firm will another youth-led climate change case against the Hawaii Department of Transportation.

The Montana decision may be unique because of the state’s atypical constitutional provision. The Oregon Constitution has no comparable provision.